After years of fits, false starts and a festering political crisis, Haiti is finally set Sunday for long-delayed parliamentary elections. This weekend’s vote, originally scheduled for 2011, will be the first of three election rounds over the next few months in which Haitians will usher thousands of new officials into office. It will be a crucial show of democracy for the Caribbean nation that has been plagued by political uncertainty over the last four years.

But there’s little enthusiasm in the air. Haiti’s elections this year are the largest and most complex in recent memory, and questions are still swirling over whether the country's electoral commission, formed in January, will be able to pull it off without major complications. The commission has been dogged by criticism in recent months over delays in training polling workers, disbursing campaign funds to political parties and distributing information to voters, and a spate of pre-election violence has boded ominously for security. Sunday will set the stage for the even higher-stakes voting rounds in October and December, which include parliamentary runoffs, mayoral elections and the presidential vote, so there is intense pressure on Haitian authorities to make sure this first Election Day goes smoothly.

Haiti’s elections have suffered from multiple delays in the past four years as government officials wrangled over electoral laws. President Michel Martelly, who has faced a growing chorus of protests over the past year, demanding his resignation over the stalled elections, was forced to disband previous incarnations of the election commission over accusations that the appointments did not comply with constitutional law. The continuing impasse came to a head in January, resulting in the dissolution of parliament and leaving Martelly to effectively rule by decree. This year’s elections will allow Haitians to sweep in new legislators for 90 percent of the seats, and vote in a successor for Martelly, who must step down because of term limits.

Need For Stability

A well-run election will inject some much needed stability into the country, which has consistently held the highest rates of poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean. Some 60 percent of the population lives under the poverty line, earning less than $2.44 a day. Economic stagnation and slow recovery from its devastating 2010 earthquake have made the need for fresh leadership that much more urgent. 

Sunday's vote is one of epic proportions. The political crisis has left only 11 elected officials in office: Martelly and 10 senators. More than 1,800 candidates are running for 138 open legislative seats, and 58 candidates are seeking the presidency. All the mayoral positions in the country are up for grabs as well, since previous mayors’ terms expired in 2012 and their jobs have since been filled by political appointees. For the first time in 15 years, all political parties are eligible to participate, and none is boycotting.

Haiti Protest Demonstrators shout anti-government slogans in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Dec. 5, 2014. They called for the resignation of President Michel Martelly over the government's failure to hold scheduled elections. Photo: Reuters/Marie Arago

The massive number of candidates has somewhat muted excitement for the vote. With more than a dozen contenders from which to choose for each parliamentary position, Haitians have a dizzying wealth of options. “The sheer amount of candidates is going to make it hard for people to get their heads around what’s going on,” said Brian Concannon, executive director of the Institute of Justice and Democracy in Haiti, a human rights advocacy group based in Boston. 

The campaign season has been tepid so far. Political parties were scheduled to receive a portion of a $10 million government fund for campaigning a month ahead of Sunday’s vote, but that money was delayed until just this week, leaving little time to get the word out about candidate platforms. The electoral commission has also disqualified several well-known candidates over technical rules, which has stirred accusations of manipulation. Some polls in recent weeks have predicted voter turnout to be as low as 15 percent.

Setting Expectations

But poor turnout might not matter as much if the election runs smoothly, Concannon said. Voters are scheduled to return to the polls in October to cast their ballots for president and for parliamentary runoffs, and again in December for a potential presidential runoff. Sunday will set expectations for the other two rounds. “I think people are waiting to see what the electoral council does,” Concannon said. “If the election is run well, and in a way that instills confidence, that could lead to a high turnout for the election in October.”

Uncertainty over the process has abounded in recent weeks. The Citizen Observatory for Institutionalizing Democracy (OCID), a coalition of Haitian civil society groups, released a statement in mid-July criticizing delays in setting up the vote. Based on its observation period from late June to early July, the group found that only half of the nation’s electoral offices had begun recruiting staff to work polling stations. “[T]he OCID fears that the training of staff for the offices and voting centers will be sloppy and finished at the last minute,” it said in a statement. Senate President Andris Riche also told Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste that “conditions are not yet ripe for holding good elections in Haiti,” citing the long delays in distributing campaign funds.

“The [electoral council] has been late regarding everything,” said Pierre Esperance, executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, an advocacy group based in Haiti. Many voters still did not have much information about where they were supposed to go to vote, he said, recalling similar problems in the last election, held in late 2010 and early 2011.




Lingering Concerns

But some observers in recent days were optimistic that the electoral commission would be able to pull it off. “Many people say it will be difficult to get things logistically in place, but as we are getting closer to Election Day we see many things that need to happen are getting there,” said Leo Spaans, the resident director in Haiti for the National Democratic Institute, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that monitors international elections.

Concerns still linger over the security situation. The National Human Rights Defense Network released a report this week detailing pre-election violence. Between July and August, the group tallied nine armed attacks, five murders, two attempted murders and 10 beatings. Haiti’s government has allocated $6 million for election security, and members of the Haitian National Police will be deployed around the country.

But Esperance said he didn’t know if that would be enough to prevent violence. “I think the problem is not about having enough security. It’s about the weakness of the institutions, the police and judicial system,” he said. Human rights groups in recent years have accused Haiti’s national police of being politicized in favor of Martelly, leaving some fears that they might not respond to acts of violence committed by the president’s supporters.

International election monitors from several different organizations, including the European Union and the Organization of American States, will be on hand to track electoral processes Sunday. Spaans of the National Democratic Institute said his organization was also planning to issue two informational releases on the day of the election to keep observers and voters aware of the situation as the day goes on. “We hope for the best,” he said.