Referendum in Haiti: new date, same irregularities

The Provisional Electoral Council of Haiti announced the constitutional referendum proposed by Jovenel Moïse will be held on September 26

July 05, 2021 by Lautaro Rivara
Jovenel Moïse

The constitutional referendum originally scheduled for June 29, 2021 was postponed for health and other reasons, and has been rescheduled for September 26. Legislative and presidential elections are also scheduled to take place that day. In the event of a possible runoff, this would be held on November 21. In the new electoral calendar, the municipal elections were postponed until January 16 of next year.

An unconstitutional constitutional reform

Since its announcement, the controversial referendum has been a central point of rejection by the Haitian society. The local political opposition denounces it en bloc, including the social movements and organizations grouped in the Popular Patriotic Front to the conservative “institutional opposition”.

The same rejection was expressed by the Mobile Institute of Democratic Education (IMED), a recognized legal organization for the defense of human rights. Business sectors and even the influential Episcopal Conference of Haiti (CEH) joined in the same sense. The bishops requested in a letter that the referendum be suspended, considering the existence of “a political crisis in which it would be difficult to reach an agreement”, and requesting the President to “avoid that the country lives worse and even darker days than the present ones”.

The main target of criticism is due to the flagrant violation of article 284-3 of the current constitution. The 1987 Magna Carta was drafted after the fall of the decades-long dictatorship of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier, which was able to bring together many of the democratic aspirations of those years. Article 284-3 of this constitution establishes that “any popular consultation aimed at modifying the constitution by referendum is formally prohibited”.

De facto government and what’s in the reform

The only legal way to modify the Magna Carta is through parliament. But the Parliament, which was majority opposition, was suspended in January 2020. As a result, the ruling party now governs by decree and concentrates practically all the public power.

The rupture of the democratic order has deepened. As is the case with the unconstitutional appointment of Prime Minister Claude Joseph, the intervention and irregular appointment of judges in the main courts of the country – the Superior Court of Auditors and the Court of Cassation – as well as the illegal extension of the presidential mandate, which expired on February 7 of this year.

The new constitutional text is still being drafted and is not available yet in Creole, the language spoken by the entire Haitian population. It proposes the return to the old presidentialist system of the Duvalier times.

The document proposes the elimination of the Senate and the construction of a unicameral legislature; it proposes the elimination of the figure of the Prime Minister and replaces it with that of a Vice President; and it would enable the possibility of two consecutive presidential mandates. In other words, the constitutional proposal sweeps away the main mechanisms of checks and balances to the power of the executive that the democratic movement conquered after 29 years of dictatorship.

With regard to the presidential elections, there are 3 candidates proposed by the ruling party to succeed Moïse: Michel Martelly, former Duvalierist and former member of the paramilitary corps of the Tonton Macoutes; Laurent Lamothe, his former Prime Minister; and there are even those who venture to propose Nicolas Duvalier himself, grandson of the first dictator of the clan.

Moïse argues that the political instability of the country is due to the conflict of powers enabled by the constitution. However, in the 217 years of national life, only two presidents have finished their respective mandates -Michel Martelly and René Preval-, both governed by the 1987 Magna Carta.

Helpless in the face of the pandemic

Even discounting the legal irregularities, other actors have alerted to the critical situation linked to the entry of new strains of COVID-19 into the country. Although the first wave had a much milder impact than expected, the escalation of cases in the last few weeks is generating fear among health professionals. It is estimated that 53% of the deaths and 36% of the infections occurred in just the last two months.

In addition, Haiti is the only country in Latin America and the Caribbean that has not yet begun its vaccination process. Jovenel Moïse recently authorized the importation and private distribution of vaccines. According to declarations made by the Director General of the Ministry of Public Health and Population, Laure Adrien, the government itself rejected the offer of vaccines that it was entitled to through the Covax mechanism, with reluctance to inoculate the population with the AstraZeneca vaccine.

In this context it is important to highlight that in an eventual electoral process, there will be serious challenges of guaranteeing transportation and voting centers with biosecurity standards. With an estimated population of more than 6 million people, the crisis in Haiti is evident in the general precariousness of the health system, the virtual absence of Intensive Care Units, and the scarcity of basic hygiene elements available to the population as a whole.

Paramilitarism and insecurity

The last area of criticism has to do with the impossibility on the part of the State to guarantee a peaceful conditions for any electoral event to take place.

At present, a growing spiral of insecurity plagues the country, at the hands of different armed sectors, in particular criminal groups. According to Pierre Espérance, director of the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights in Haiti (RNDDH), more than 10,000 people have been displaced from the districts of Bas Delmas and Martissant. In the latter, Doctors Without Borders had to suspend medical attention in one of its hospitals, due to the proximity and the risk produced by the actions of the gangs.

A few days ago Jimmy Cherizier, alias Barbecue, the leader of the federation of gangs in the capital known as the G9, called on the population to arm themselves. This and other groups control the territory of the most populous neighborhoods of the metropolitan area, and are even the ones who manage identity cards.

Few analysts and officials dare to predict an improvement in the social, health and security situation in the coming months.