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28024: Hermantin(Opinion) Build strong electoral framework (fwd)

From: leonie hermantin <lhermantin@hotmail.com>

Posted on Wed, Mar. 01, 2006

Build strong electoral framework


The lasting image I have of Election Day in Haiti last month was just after sundown. I was standing outside the hollow shell of a building where 43 tables, or polling stations, were located. Poll workers who had been on site for more than 14 hours were huddled around a single candle per table, the only light available for the polling booth president to read the ballot, pass it around to political party observers for confirmation and then have the secretary record the vote on a master tally sheet. I left before the last vote was counted, bleary-eyed and discouraged that after so many years, so many elections, so many battles to get to this celebratory day of democracy, this was the best that Haitians were going to get.

Election a disgrace

While I admit that it's hard to build an electoral framework without an infrastructure, this was the fourth presidential election I've witnessed in the last 18 years, and I know I am not setting the bar too high by saying that it was a disgrace.

The entire procedure, from the ill-conceived voting booths to the dismal tabulation process was an insult to the Haitian people. It's hard to understand how, with a $75 million budget covered by the international community, a bloated electoral calendar that included four postponements over three months and well-paid -- if not over-paid -- international experts from the United Nations and the Organization of American States, there could have been so much mayhem and magouy -- a catchall Creole word that means corruption, deceit and swindling.

Which begs the questions: Why? And then what, if anything, can be done to rectify the problem for the 129 parliamentary seats and numerous local spots yet to be determined? Although the runoffs were originally set for March 19, they have already been postponed. Unfortunately, the delay appears to be related to technical tally difficulties and the flight of the Provisional Electoral Council president rather than an aptly concentrated effort to identify and correct the massive fraud that took place in the first round.

What went wrong?

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I would say that this is part of a master plan by the international community to undermine President-elect René Préval, who can't govern until he has a prime minister, chosen in conjunction with the parliament. Préval's previous record as president has the international community concerned that he will either realign himself with ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, or govern as an independent, truly democratic leader with an unprecedented popular mandate.

With no investigation into all that went wrong with the first round of voting, and because there will be far less attention paid to these upcoming elections now that the presidency has been decided, there will be an even greater chance for irregularity. Voters will trek long distances, confront incomplete registration lists and then cast their vote without knowing if it will be counted because poll workers with political agendas know precisely how much they were able to get away with already. Tinkering with tally sheets, allowing voters to cast multiple ballots and stuffing the ballot box will, in some places -- particularly those in the hard to reach areas in the countryside -- be the norm, rather than the exception.

Expose the problems

There were more than a thousand national observers and three international observation teams for Haiti's first round. These groups have been shamefully silent. Sending internal memos and holding backroom discussions on electoral discrepancies with foreign diplomats and Haitian officials without demanding changes or exposing the problems and their sources to the press serves only to massage their egos and pad their pockets. It does nothing to advance the democratic process in Haiti. If this is the best that they can do, they should stay home.

It doesn't have to be this way. We have to demand that our dollars are put to better use, propping up Haitian institutions that will hold the Haitian state accountable. We need to be selective but generous in supporting specific grass-roots groups, some of which trained local observers who did their best to try to ensure fraud-free elections. The vast majority of the 37,000 poll workers and nearly 2.1 million who voted want, and deserve, at least that much.

Kathie Klarreich is a freelance journalist and author of Madame Dread: A Tale of Love, Vodou and Civil Strife in Haiti.