The brutal assassination of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse and its aftermath is clear proof that the Haitian political system is broken, with no easy solution at hand. The Haitian parliament is defunct – Moïse had been governing by presidential decree since January 2020. Over the past year, armed gangs have reigned on the street, carrying out a campaign of kidnapping and killing that has left scores dead and the population terrified. In the wake of Moïse’s death, there is great uncertainty about the way forward. The immediate reaction of the United States and the UN has been to support moving forward with elections planned for September. That would be a mistake. The degradation of Haiti’s democracy is now at a critical point, perhaps the point of no return. It is tempting to think that new elections will clarify the situation and restore stability, but experience teaches us just the opposite. What Haiti needs is to take stock of what is broken and fix it. That is what a broad coalition of opposition parties and civil society is calling for.
The decline of Haitian democracy has accelerated recently, but is long in the making, with each set of elections representing a negative loop that further weakens its foundations and the people’s confidence. Institutions are weak. The 1987 constitution leaves many gaps, including on the division of power among the president, prime minister, parliament and the judiciary. The lack of a permanent electoral council and the need for a new electoral law for each election mean that the process is renegotiated in parliament each electoral cycle, with large sums of money reportedly changing hands. Some of Haiti’s leading business figures are allegedly behind that money, as their dominant positions in the import market and other sectors benefit from having influence over whoever is in power, as well as from a chaotic status quo in which the absence of both economic competition and the rule of law leaves their hands free.
The international community, led by the United States, has for the most part supported this political system, despite recognizing its weaknesses. The U.S. sent troops to Haiti in 1994 to restore Bertrand Aristide as Haiti’s democratically elected president. The UN maintained a large peacekeeping mission from 2004-2017. Reducing violence, maintaining stability and discouraging mass migration have been core international objectives in Haiti. The U.S., the UN, the EU and others have also funded programs to strengthen Haitian democratic institutions, but have not exerted significant pressure on Haiti’s political class to reform institutional weaknesses because applying such pressure raises two dilemmas. First, Haiti is a sovereign country with a constitution and processes that are legal, whether or not we may judge them adequate. Second, as long as the system works sufficiently to maintain stability, why push changes that might have a destabilizing effect? As a result, the international community has tended to turn a blind eye toward undemocratic behavior by Haiti’s leadership, favoring political expediency that would maintain political stability.
In other words, institutional weaknesses encourage undemocratic behavior and the international community fails to discourage it. In a negative loop, each time undemocratic behavior is accepted, it becomes the baseline for the next loop. Jovenel Moïse’s rise and fall are a case in point.
Moïse was elected president in November 2016, after the original 2015 voting was cancelled following accusations of fraud in his favor. It is worth noting that an interim president, Jocelerme Privert, was appointed in February 2016 and his provisional government organized the 2016 polling. While turnout was only around 20% (in addition to voter apathy, there was a category 4 hurricane just before the elections), the election was considered legitimate by domestic and international observers and gave Moïse 55% of the vote. Elections for both chambers of parliament were also completed in January 2017, restoring those bodies to their full complement after Moïse’s predecessor and mentor, Michel Martelly, refused to hold general elections during his presidency and the terms of office of most parliamentarians had lapsed in early 2015.
I was the U.S. Ambassador to Haiti throughout the 2015-2017 election period. President Moïse’s February 2017 inauguration was initially met with a general sigh of relief, as Haitian democratic institutions appeared to be back on track. But any careful observer of the Haitian political scene knew that a new crisis was looming if reforms were not undertaken. President Moïse, while making early positive statements about democracy and plans for reform, never followed through. His style became increasingly authoritarian, including a decision to follow Martelly’s example by refusing to hold parliamentary elections, dissolving parliament in January 2020 and thereafter ruling by presidential decree. Moïse had planned a referendum on a new constitution that had been drafted without broad consultation. His popularity was abysmally low, with regular large protests that often turned violent. The 2016-election negative loop was complete.
Or was it? Throughout 2020, heavily armed gangs operated more openly, unleashing a rash of kidnappings and killings across the country. By early 2021, gangs were directly confronting Haitian police in armed clashes, taunting political and economic leaders publicly, and executing journalists, activists and politicians. Rumors abound as to who is behind the different gangs, but at least some of them appear to have become free agents. In any case, there is no denying the central role they now play in the daily existence of Haitians, totally disrupting social and economic life. Their potential to disrupt elections completely, or to act on behalf of a specific candidate, is tremendous. The negative election loop has become a death loop in Haiti and must not become the baseline for the next electoral cycle, which could cost many Haitians their lives and could spell the end of democratic institutions.
That is why new elections should not be rushed in the wake of Jovenel Moïse’s assassination. The Haitian constitution does not appear to provide a clear framework for Moïse’s succession, and there are already two men claiming to be the legitimate Prime Minister. This moment of uncertainty actually provides an opportunity for a rational review and revamping of the constitution and the electoral process, based on broad consultations. A group of Haitian opposition parties and civil society that joined forces a year ago has said it will not participate in the planned elections in September and has proposed a two-year transition to undertake the needed reforms and hold legitimate elections. Such an approach is not without potential pitfalls, as the process could get bogged down and leave Haiti in a constitutional limbo.
The negative election loop has become a death loop in Haiti and must not become the baseline for the next electoral cycle, which could cost many Haitians their lives and could spell the end of democratic institutions.
But in reality, that’s where Haiti already is. Given the security situation, it is far from certain that elections could be held in September in any case. If they do go forward and the opposition does not participate, it will be hard to claim that the results represent the democratic will of the Haitian people. Therefore, the opposition group’s approach to a structured and inclusive transition deserves the international community’s strong support. This should include not only assistance in strengthening new institutions and holding elections, but also sustained political engagement to ensure that anti-democratic forces in the political and business spheres do not undermine the fragile transition process. Haitians must be in the lead, but the U.S. and others need to take a strong stance in defense of Haitian democracy. President Biden has said that a top priority for his Administration is to demonstrate to the world that democracies can prevail over autocracies. There’s an opportunity to prove just that very close to home.