The view from the ground.

Haiti’s Political Crisis Is About to Get Worse

No elections, an empty Senate, violent protests on the streets of Port-au-Prince -- and Haiti's unrest is just getting started.

Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images
Photo by HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Election Day came and went and nobody voted.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Election Day came and went and nobody voted.

Instead, thousands of protesters marched from cluttered and crumbling downtown Port-au-Prince up to the tony suburbs and back. They waved voter cards in a show of discontent. Opposition demonstrations rarely leave the poorer, low-lying stretches of the city, but Oct. 26 was different.

Marchers navigated traffic under the gaze of a heavy police and United Nations presence.

Clad in riot gear, Haitian National Police lobbed tear gas into a crowd. They nabbed two organizers and jailed them south of downtown, only to have the faithful march right to the jail and demand their release. And an opposition leader and presidential hopeful, Sen. Moise Jean Charles, rode alongside the protests on horseback.

Hours after the polls would have opened, President Michel Martelly finally declared the obvious: There would be no elections, as scheduled, on Oct. 26. Haiti’s three-year-long political crisis continues.

Martelly "promises to pursue consultations with the different sectors of national life in order to hold the elections as soon as possible," said a statement released by his office the morning of the protests. The opposition, for its part, promised to continue massing in the streets of Port-au-Prince and the northern city of Cap-Haitien until Martelly is gone.

Amid a worsening constitutional crisis that has been brewing for more than three years, Haiti’s battling political factions are doubling down. Police have aggressively shut down the regular protests in Port-au-Prince, opposition senators are calling for the immediate resignation of the president, and the legislature remains stuck in a stalemate that makes the U.S. Senate look busy. A Nov. 18 anti-government protest ended with one demonstrator shot and killed and four others wounded. The government condemned the attack, but nobody has been apprehended. At this point, nobody seems to know who opened fire. Many worry that the latest violence could be an indication of what’s to come.

Haiti hasn’t held elections since 2011. Any attempt since then has been stifled by accusations that the electoral council that would organize and oversee them is corrupt and untrustworthy.

Since the terms of 10 senators expired in 2012, the Senate has operated at two-thirds capacity. Haitians were supposed to vote on Oct. 26 for 20 new senators, as well as elect the entire lower house of Parliament and municipal officials around the country. If no elections take place before Jan. 12, 2015, the Haitian Constitution states that Parliament will automatically dissolve and Martelly will rule by decree.

That looks likely. And if Martelly moves into a position of complete control, it could spark massive protests by the opposition that could further destabilize the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

"There will be chaos," predicted Steven Benoit, a senator from Port-au-Prince who once supported Martelly but broke ranks over frustration with corruption and incompetence in the administration. Benoit remains among the most pragmatic in the opposition. He has not backed the protests. "There will be a vacuum of power. The bad people love that," he said. Benoit said he expects an uptick in violence, from gang activity to an influx of South American drug dealers using Haiti as a stop-off.

The opposition says that Martelly is corrupt and uses the police to crack down on political opponents. It believes that by refusing to negotiate the terms of an election in good faith and prolonging the electoral crisis, it can force the president to step down before his term runs out in 2015. This would place the opposition in a strong position ahead of the next presidential election, in October 2015.

"Some people believe the opposition wants to destabilize the country," said Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born political scientist at the University of Virginia. The opposition hopes that would leave Martelly "a very weak president, and he’d have to end his term."

For his part, Martelly wants to finish his term and keep intact his legacy as the country’s steward in the difficult years after the 2010 earthquake. And many observers believe he wants to anoint his prime minister, Laurent Lamothe, as his successor.

The opposition promises it will send hundreds of thousands of people into the streets if the president starts decreeing new laws in January, something they say he legally can’t do, despite the constitutional provisions that give him the power in the event of the government’s dissolution. "President Martelly will not have an open highway to do as he chooses without a Parliament, because the people will rise up," said opposition senator Pierre Francky Exius.

But if Exius and his opposition colleagues are furious about the looming constitutional crisis, they share some of the blame: In March, six opposition senators blocked an electoral bill that would have been necessary to hold a vote. They argued at the time that their stonewalling was intended to defend "the rule of law." Martelly’s election law, they said, was unconstitutional.

Opposition leaders say Martelly has long sought to rule by decree and only promised elections to curry favor with the international community. "I’m very encouraged by the fact that Haiti has now made progress on an election law that could ensure elections this year and help to resolve some of the political roadblocks that stalled some progress in the country," President Barack Obama said before an Oval Office meeting with Martelly in February.

Martelly announced the Oct. 26 election date four months after his meeting with Obama.

Throughout the summer, the upper chamber of Parliament remained at a standstill, with the opposition blocking the necessary quorum. Both sides chided one another for intransigence. The protests in town continued, and Martelly told an audience in New York during the United Nations General Assembly in September that he’s ready to rule by decree if the crisis isn’t solved.

Discussions about when and how to hold elections are still taking place between the Martelly administration and some members of the opposition. But even those involved admit they’re not serious. "They want the government to resign so we can go back to the old days of chaos in Haiti," said Karl Jean-Louis, the prime minister’s chief of staff.

Those old days of chaos are on everyone’s mind. In 2004 a violent uprising led to both the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and the entrance of U.N. peacekeepers. Aristide was deposed before that, too, just months into his first term in 1991. And as the 2011 election that elected Martelly dragged on between the first and second rounds, pockets of Port-au-Prince broke out in violence.

Recent clashes between police and opposition demonstrators might be a taste of what’s to come. Opposition protestors have routinely blocked the highway outside the capital — the only paved route to the southwestern cities of Les Cayes, Port-Salut, and Jérémie — for days on end. While the opposition is careful not to publicly advocate violence, they do boast of the masses they can mobilize. "If you think there have been a lot of people in Port-au-Prince, in Cap-Haitien, in Ti Goave, just wait until January," Exius told me, smirking.

Unrest could erase what few gains Haiti has made since the 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. "The Haitian private sector is well aware that alone they will not be able to create the amount of jobs and do not have the capital needed for the development of Haiti," said Didier Fils-Aimé, the president of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Haiti. "We do need outside investors. Not having a legislative branch will be a tar on the image of Haiti." Fils-Aimé said it would be doubly difficult to convince outside investors to open shop in Haiti if elections don’t happen.

Massive opposition-led protests alone could keep people away from the polls whenever an election finally takes place, said Alessandra Rossi, an advisor with the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. Turnout in 2011 was a dismal 23 percent, even without the threat of violence.

Both the administration and some members of the opposition contend that elections could be held in the first third of 2015. With the presidential election planned for next October, that would make a busy, expensive year. Many assume the two elections will be held at the same time to cut costs and reduce the administrative burden.

Benoit, the moderate opposition senator, said an agreement from Martelly to hold elections and a promise not to decree any new laws in the interim could prevent madness in the streets. But with the January deadline looming, that still looks unlikely. And Benoit, a former Martelly ally, said even he will start supporting civil disobedience if Martelly issues edicts. "People will be in the streets," he said. "And this is the first time I’ll tell my people to be in the streets, also."

Peter Granitz is a freelance reporter in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Follow him on Twitter: @pgranitz.

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