World Americas

Why 14 months passed before Haiti finally got a president-elect

The initial election was held in October 2015, but various delays and investigations delayed Jovenel Moïse's confirmation as the winner of the election until this Tuesday.

Haitian businessman Jovenel Moise addresses the audience after being declared the official winner of the November 2016 presidential elections, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Wednesday.
Jeanty Junior Augustin/Reuters | Caption

After nearly a year without a president, a Haitian tribunal officially named Jovenel Moïse the next leader of the Caribbean nation.

On Tuesday, officials declared Mr. Moïse the victor in a contentious presidential election that had been drawn out for 14 months after voters first cast their ballots. 

The businessman's campaign had been set to conclude as early as October of 2015, when the initial presidential vote took place. But the absence of a solid majority vote, ongoing political difficulties in the country, and a devastating hurricane complicated the process and led to an additional election this past November. That election was called into question by political rivals, prompting the formation of a special electoral tribunal to investigate allegations of voter fraud.

The tribunal did note that there had been some irregularities in the vote uncovered during their investigation, but ultimately decided the irregularities were not enough to have substantially swayed the election towards Moïse. Moïse won the presidency with more than 55 percent of the vote in November, a comfortable margin over his closest competitor, Jude Célestin, who finished with just under 20.

Now, Moïse, who has never held a political office, is tasked with leading a fractured nation that has been without an elected president since Michel Martelly stepped down in February 2016 amid allegations of corruption.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Americas and one of the poorest in the world, and the presidential campaign of 2015 had already been marked by multiple charges of corruption, fraud, and disorganization. In October 2015, Haitians turned out to vote for one of no less than 54 presidential candidates at the polls. Moïse, a follower of then-President Martelly, won the election with a plurality of the votes, and a runoff was required in order for secure a majority to actually take office. But allegations of vote rigging and fraud from both opposition leaders and human rights organizations delayed the election multiple times over the next year.

When Martelly stepped down in February, Jocelerme Privert was instilled as interim leader of the country and an agreement was reached to hold the runoff vote 120 days later, on April 24, but on the day itself, the vote never happened, NPR reports.

The day after the expiration of the agreement, then-secretary general of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon, issued a statement calling for an immediate vote in the country, to no avail. 

Eventually, the runoff was scrapped, and a new election was scheduled for fall of 2016, this time with only 27 candidates. After the highly destructive hurricane Matthew swept through Haiti in October, the vote was delayed once more. Finally, over a year after winning the plurality of the vote in 2015, Moïse won with the majority of the vote in the first round of the reset election in November. 

The long road to the presidency is only the first step in a number of challenges the president-elect will face once he is sworn in on February 7. His first and primary concern will likely be Haiti's economy, which was floundering even before hurricane Matthew caused $2.8 billion in damages in southern Haiti.

"The numbers are extremely scary," Port-au-Prince economist Kesner Pharel told the Miami Herald. "We're looking at no jobs in the economy, and more than 25 percent of people in extreme poverty and more than 60 percent in poverty.

Haiti is also looking at double-digit inflation as well as a cholera epidemic, with little help in sight from foreign aid. 

"It's going to be a very difficult situation for the new government coming in," Mr. Pharel added.

Moïse's business acumen may win him some support toward rebuilding the Haitian economy, but he will likely be resisted in parliament despite his theoretical majority. And low voter turnout (around 21 percent) may further weaken political position, facing doubts and distrust from all sides.

Despite these difficulties, Moïse has promised to create jobs and improve education in the country. In order to do that, he will need to create trust in a dauntingly fragmented political atmosphere.

"The social tensions are very high and Jovenel has to talk to the political parties and get them around the table," said Pharel. 

This article contains material from the Associated Press.