Originally: Crisis in Haiti: Regime change is not a setback for democracy

The presidential elections were as flawed as the parliamentary elections, only not as blatantly so.

The forced departure of Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years before the legal end of his term has provoked wails of discontent from those who believe this is a setback for democracy in the region. No one familiar with how Aristide won election in the first place should share those concerns, however. It takes a long stretch of the imagination to describe the elections of Nov. 26, 2000 as “free and fair.”

To understand, one must go back to the notoriously flawed parliamentary elections in May of the same year in which an Aristide supporter on the Provisional Electoral Council [CEP] staff manipulated the outcome to fraudulently give 8 to 10 Aristide-backed Senate candidates a seat without a runoff election.

International condemnation

The discovery resulted in widespread international and domestic condemnation, including the view of the Organization of American States electoral-observer mission in Haiti headed by Orlando Marville, a former Barbados diplomat. The OAS said it did not consider the Senate results “either accurate or fair.”

”The failure of the Haitian government and the electoral authorities to use the proper method in determining winners in the Senate election certainly calls into question the credibility of the entire Haitian election process,” declared State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

When Leon Manus, the respected 78-year-old CEP president, refused to certify the results, he was forced to flee the country after receiving death threats. Two other CEP members also resigned in protest. President Rene Preval replaced the trio with three loyalists from Aristide’s Lavalas Family Party.

Runoff elections went ahead as scheduled in July, in defiance of international and domestic protests. That resulted in the suspension of $500 million in international aid.

Presidential problems

In August, the mandate for the CEP, now stacked in favor of Aristide, was expanded to include the November presidential elections.

The presidential elections were as flawed as the parliamentary elections, only not as blatantly so.

All the serious organized opposition boycotted the presidential vote. The international community refused to send electoral monitors. The international media also ignored the vote, given it’s obvious foregone conclusion. The ballot listed six candidates, in addition to Aristide, all virtually unknown, both before and after the election. None did any campaigning.

The Lavalas-controlled electoral commission announced that 60.5 percent of the electorate had voted and that Aristide had won 91.5 percent of the votes cast. Most estimates, however, put the voter turnout at 5 to 15 percent of the total electorate.

In effect, the elections involved a discredited electoral council, no credible opponents and no credible observers except for a small group from the Caribbean Community; all that and intimidation as well.

Pressuring the media

”On the day of the presidential election, several radio stations received threats after they reported low voter turnout in the capital and outer provinces,” said the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). “Some anonymous callers ordered stations not to comment on the elections. The private radio station Radio Galaxie, which received calls telling it to report higher voter turnout, closed down midway through the voting and did not resume broadcasting until four days later.

‘After the election, half a dozen news outlets started receiving regular anonymous threats warning them not to criticize the government or Aristide’s FL party. Radio Caraibes, which was receiving threats almost every day at year’s end, stopped broadcasting for nearly three weeks after a caller said, `If you don’t close down, we will force you to close.’ The call followed a broadcast of the station’s weekly political news program, during which members of the opposition group criticized the government and questioned the legitimacy of the November 26 election.”

In fact, rather than a setback to Haitian democracy, his departure may well have given it a second chance by not allowing Aristide two years to further consolidate his increasingly corrupt and dictatorial rule.

 Don Bohning is a former Herald Latin America editor