Haiti election results could open spigot to billions in aid

With foreign governments and donors hesitant to send funds to President René Préval's administration, a Haiti election was necessary if the country wanted to tap into into billions of dollars in aid.

Guillermo Arias/AP
People walk past rubble through smoke from burning trash in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti.
Photo credit: Reuters, AP

James Charles is unemployed, has no job prospects, and lives here in a tent camp. He is hardly the exception.

He and some 1.3 million others have lived in tents and slapdash shacks since the January earthquake destroyed their homes and businesses.

"Haitians need a president who can help get us out of these camps. We need someone who will clean up the streets," he says. "The people have chosen too many politicians who have not done anything for the people. But now we need someone who will."

Haitians had hoped the Nov. 28 elections would be the first step in finding that leader from a field of 19 presidential candidates while also electing a government that would be considered credible by the international community.

Despite problems, international electoral observers and Haiti's electoral council validated the pivotal vote. Haitians waited impatiently today as results were due to be announced at any time, with some fearing outbreaks of violence no matter what is declared. A runoff for the top two winners is likely to be held Jan. 16.

It's a crucial step forward for Haiti. But the election is putting scrutiny on the effectiveness of holding elections amid turmoil: Should a nation press on with democracy or delay a vote until more conducive conditions arrive?

12 candidates declared fraud

Despite assurances that Haiti was ready to vote, even with cholera spreading and rubble still in the streets, controversies arose. Thousands of confused voters could not find their polling places or their names on rolls. Bandits shut down some electoral centers. And 12 of the 19 candidates – including two of the most popular – took the unusual step of joining on election day to declare fraud and call for a new vote.

"The country absolutely wasn't ready for elections, that's obvious from all the people who couldn't vote, to the irregularities at polling places and the exclusion of political parties," says Mark Weisbrot, codirector of the left-leaning Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, which had election observers in Haiti.

Holding elections too early can do more harm than good, experts say. Afghanistan went forward with a parliamentary vote earlier this year, resulting in thousands of claims of fraud in what analysts called a potential setback for democracy there.

So why did Haiti press on with its vote? It had to, experts say, if it wanted to tap into billions of dollars in aid. Foreign governments and international donors have hesitated to send funds to outgoing President René Préval's administration.

Aid hinges on election

Of the $2.12 billion that international donors (not including humanitarian agencies) pledged to Haiti in 2010, only $897 million of it, or 42.3 percent, had been disbursed as of late November, according to the United Nations Office of the Special Envoy for Haiti.

There was "a reluctance on the part of the international community to fund the Préval government, a lack of faith," says Haitian political scientist Jean-Germain Gros at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. "If you delayed the vote by three or six months, what would have guaranteed you would have a better outcome? It was important that Haiti proceeded with this."

The United States government, for example, has delivered not a dime of the $1.15 billion it pledged. It's been held up in Congress.

Rep. James Clyburn (D) of South Carolina, who was in Haiti for the elections, tells the Monitor he is hopeful that the US and other foreign donors will have confidence in the next government.

"I think it's always important to have credible leadership in place, especially when you're dealing with this kind of international involvement," he says. "I would hope that when this process is all over, [the government] will have the sufficient international support to allow the nation to move forward."

Delaying the election would have meant slowing the already glacial pace of the recovery and reconstruction process. No Haitian wanted that.

Donors seek partner in new president

Rubble lies at every turn in the traffic-filled capital, Port-au-Prince, where the US government has taken the lead on rubble removal but has cleared just 1.2 million cubic meters – about 5 percent – of the 25 million cubic meters of debris, according to the US Agency for International Development. And just thousands of the more than 1 million displaced by the earthquake have been moved from tents and shacks into more permanent homes.

"People are realistically going to be in these camps for one or two years more," says Pierre Frandy, a politically active camp resident. "But we need to see progress, that someone is working for us."

With the withdrawn and wildly unpopular President Préval out of the picture next year, the aid spigot might open, providing the next president with potentially billions of dollars and a chance to rebuild a country beset by decades of poverty.

International donors "want to know they have a partner on the ground, someone who is going to be there for the next several years," says Leonard Doyle, Haiti spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, which organizes services to the country's 1,300 camps for displaced persons. When the election period "settles, you'll see a lot more of the aid come in."

The front-runners for the runoff differ in how to spend that money.

But one thing is clear: The next president "is going to need an awful lot of international support," says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of international relations at Florida International University in Miami who monitors Haitian politics. "The next president will face enormous problems. But maybe a new government will mean a new start, and that will be a good thing."

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