Election delays

November 14, 2005

Presidential elections in Haiti have been postponed four times in recent months, and that is no surprise. The country is in shambles and candidates are barely campaigning, ballots have not been printed and 1 million eligible voters still must be registered. National identification cards to be used by voters have not been delivered. Few Haitians believe the country's interim government and its Provisional Electoral Council will be able to pull off elections by the new, but as of yet unannounced, target date of sometime next month.

Maybe it's time Haiti's major benefactors - the United States, the United Nations, Canada and France - admit that Haiti is simply not ready for elections and stop pressuring provisional government leaders to stick with the December deadline. Instead, they could help devise a more realistic schedule that would elect a president by late spring.

The Haitian people's precarious lives have been further marred by bloodshed and a failed economy during the 22 months of political turmoil and social upheaval since the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. They deserve an election that is seen as legitimate by all sectors of a deeply divided society. Only one Haitian president has finished a full term in the last 34 years - the rest all lost power in coups - and the next one should be chosen in an election that has wide voter and candidate participation. This cannot happen under current conditions.

The delays and postponements have not been caused by minor glitches but by systemic problems. The election, which is being financed by international aid, was budgeted at $60 million but is $10 million over budget, mostly because of the ineptness of the electoral council. More worrisome is the environment under which the elections will take place. The Haitian judiciary is among the most corrupt institutions in the country. It is barely functioning, yet there has been almost no investment made to fix it in the two years since Mr. Aristide left. Instead, the international community has said it must be rebuilt from the ground up - after the elections. Meanwhile, hundreds of political prisoners, including two prominent Aristide supporters, are being held in jail without formal charges.

In addition, less money is being spent on the police force than on the elections, even though the police must provide security at the polls. The force has experienced repeated problems coordinating and communicating with United Nations police, and the Haitian police chief recently lamented learning that at least 2,000 paychecks were going to phantom officers on the force.

Given the very serious stakes, delaying the elections can hardly make things any worse. Indeed, the country is better served by putting on the brakes.

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