For more than a decade, the United Nations has tried to help Haiti become a stable, democratic country. In 2010, this international attention gained even more momentum after a giant earthquake killed more than 200,000. On Sunday, the world witnessed the first major test of this global project to lift up a failed state. Haitians went to the polls in the first of three elections that will measure their ability in self-governance.
The world community needs a success in Haiti as it copes with other tragic nations in Africa and the Middle East. And Americans in particular may be following Haiti’s progress during these elections. More than half of them made charitable contributions after the 2010 earthquake.
Haiti’s history is full of dictatorships, coups, poverty, and environmental disasters. To counter this narrative and break a cycle of dependency, the first step is to plant the idea that elections can reflect the people’s desire for responsive, law-abiding institutions. The UN failed to achieve that when it rushed an election in 2011 so soon after the earthquake. By contrast, these elections are run more by Haitians themselves. They involve better-trained police and more organized balloting, such as the use of public schools for voting. No party is boycotting the election this time. Such steps are necessary to lower the cynicism toward democracy and raise the turnout at the ballot box.
Compared to previous elections, the one for a new Parliament on Aug. 9 had less violence. Leaders were more outspoken against the violence that did occur. Other markers hint Haiti may be turning a corner. The rate of children in school has risen from 78 percent before the quake to 90 percent. Life expectancy has gone up over the past quarter century.
The main aim in the elections is to end the country’s political dysfunction. President Michel Martelly, who cannot run again, has ruled unilaterally since January when legislative gridlock led to the dissolution of Parliament. Many candidates have run simply to gain the immunity granted legislators as a way to avoid prosecution for past crimes.
The election of a new president in October (with a runoff planned in December) will mark the third consecutive time that Haitians have democratically elected a top leader. In the history of democracy, it often takes at least three clean elections for people to accept their own responsibility in carefully choosing candidates. As the poorest country in the Americas, Haiti has taken longer than others to reach this threshold. After a decade of hand-holding from the UN, other countries, and charity groups, Haitians may now realize their moment has arrived.
Elections are a doorway for a society to define its collective self through representative government. The rest of the world sees Haiti as one society. Perhaps 11 million Haitians will now do the same.