Should Haiti hold elections this year for the parliament, mayors, and president? Are elections a key step to ensuring honest, transparent governance or are they a dangerous distraction from the business of rebuilding the country?
Although the international consensus seems to be that Haiti needs to hold elections to maintain a credible government, I believe that the opposite is true. Holding elections will just maintain the status quo and contribute to rebuilding the chaos.
The Haitian government is based on the 1987 constitution which was written to ensure that another dictator like Duvalier could never dominate the country. The Constitution sets out a strongly decentralized government with numerous checks and balances. Unfortunately, the structure is so complicated that Haiti has never succeeded in electing all of the required officials. As per the 1987 Constitution, the government is composed of the following levels:
The nation is divided into ten departments which are divided into 133 municipalities (communes) and 533 rural sections (sections communales). Each rural section is to have an elected three-person council (Article 63) and an assembly (Article 65). The municipality is governed by a three-member council (Article 70) plus an assembly composed of representatives of each rural section assembly (Article 66-1). The department is governed by a council and an assembly composed of representatives from each municipal assembly (Article 80).
With all the chaos in Haiti over the last 25 years, Haiti has never managed to elect all of these different levels. There have never been functioning rural section assemblies and therefore never municipal assemblies and never departmental assemblies.
Unfortunately for Haiti, one of the responsibilities of the departmental assemblies is to propose the candidates for the Permanent Electoral Council. Without a permanent electoral council, each election is run by a provisional one created for that purpose. To make these councils "fair," they are normally composed of members of each political party. Just imagine how hard it would be to hold elections in the United States if they had to be organized by a board composed of an equal number of Democrats and Republicans with a few independents thrown in for good measure!
Another critical problem with the Haitian government system is the division of power between the President and Prime Minister. In theory, the President sets the overall vision and the Prime Minister manages the day-to-day affairs of the government. Although the President proposes the Prime Minister to the Parliament, the candidate must come from the majority party in Parliament. Additionally, the Parliament, not the President, has the power to revoke the Prime Minister. This split seems to inevitably result in conflicts and power struggles.
The Constitution was ratified in 1987 and Haiti has struggled unsuccessfully for over 23 years to implement the envisioned government. It is time to try a fresh approach. What if, instead of holding elections amid the current chaos in Haiti to elect officials to an unworkable form of government, Haiti started fresh. The government admitted the obvious--it is impossible to campaign for office during this reconstruction and the jockeying for power and position hampers this important work. Instead of holding yet another round of elections this year, a new national assembly would be called. This new assembly would begin meeting on January 12, 2011 to write a new Constitution. In 2011, Haiti would hold a national referendum to accept or reject the new constitution (which will hopefully provide for a more streamlined government) and then to hold whatever elections are called for in the new constitution.
I met with one of the UN consultants working on the Post Disaster Needs Assessment. He said that hardest question that their team faces is, "To what state do we rebuild Haiti?" If the goal is to put Haiti right back where it was on January 11th, then Haiti should go forward with its elections. However, if the goal is to build the foundation for sustainable growth, then Haiti needs a fresh start and a new constitution.