Originally: The provisional electoral council (CEP) and us

With the elections that are planned for this year, the Haitian people will have been called to the polls six times since 1990. So even if Haiti has no democratic tradition, one cannot say it has no electoral tradition. Yet there are elections and elections and, as we say in Haiti, eleksyon pa jan-m piti (“elections are never a trifling matter”).

Over that same period of time we will have had six provisional electoral councils (CEP), including the current one. In a sense, the provisional nature of the CEP has been consistent with that of the elections they have organized. The winners in those elections — both those honestly elected and the frauds — have also been provisional and have rarely completed their term in office.

What kind of elections will we have this year? It’s up to each person to answer that question and to make his or her contribution.

Yet one thing is certain: the current CEP faces the unprecedented challenge of producing legitimate and undisputed winners. And that is our challenge, too, if we are to make the world stop laughing at us, if we are to have respect for our elected leaders, and if they are not to spend their time defending their legitimacy with money, public relations firms and lobbies of all kinds. If this is to happen, steps must be taken now, for afterwards will be too late.

There will no use pointing fingers at scapegoats after the fact, complaining that there were too many candidates, or the government didn’t do what it should have, or that Haitians don’t believe in elections anymore, or that the political parties are just so many crumbs. The CEP will say as it has in the past that it fulfilled its part of the contract. But it will be too late.

Being a member of the CEP entails an uncommon sense of responsibility and steadfastness. All things considered, it’s not a bad job. But if you want to do it well, you can’t lie down on the job. It can be a highly gratifying job, not in material terms but in terms of civic duty. Of course there is a risk of being taken to task by poor losers, by overzealous partisans, or by malicious rumors. But what job does not carry that risk?

Moreover, the CEP has taken some precautions through articles 217 and 225 of the draft electoral decree. Perhaps it would have been better simply to invoke the relevant provisions of the criminal code, instead of adopting these somewhat ambiguous articles. But we have to trust the judgment of the CEP’s legal advisers.

The  good news is that the CEP seems to have stopped washing its dirty linen in public. It must have realized that the tawdry spectacle it was presenting not long ago amounted to shooting itself in the foot. But a wound of this kind is slow to heal. The stumbling approach with which the CEP has gone about its work, sometimes falling flat on its face, is perhaps an after-effect of this self-inflicted injury.

Article 45, dealing with the choice of a director and deputy director for the Electoral Registry, is an egregious example of this stumbling: those officers are to be selected by a two-thirds vote of the CEP. We must hope that this provision does not reflect a serious functional problem within the CEP. If it is to make decisions not by consensus but by vote, that would suggest there are still some sharp tensions within the CEP, and that conflicts could erupt into the open at any time. Taking a vote is not the best way to settle some kinds of disputes: after the vote, no matter how the decision is dressed up, there will be some who feel they have won and others who feel they have lost. That’s human nature, and it leaves its mark. On the other hand, when there is a consensus, especially within a body that has only nine members, there are no losers.

In the case of the director in question, if a vote and its attendant tensions are to be avoided there must be a competition based on terms of reference, a desired candidate profile, eligibility criteria and an evaluation rating system.

Also stumbling, if less so, is the approach to financing for political parties. I don’t believe that Haitians are opposed to financing in principle, but some of the provisions raise questions. Which items of party budgets will be financed? Will salaries be covered? Will the CEP have to approve party budgets? Is this not a disguised inducement to a proliferation of candidates and parties? And what if the budget has been deliberately inflated to impress the CEP?

In any case, if we’re going to offer fringe benefits to the parties, why not the voters too? After all, without them there wouldn’t be any elections. The legitimacy of our future elected officials is directly proportional to voter turnout.

The CEP is an institution that is struggling to prove itself, and at election time it becomes the biggest employer in the country. Certainly, it deserves our encouragement. But its human resource manager has a lot on his plate. Its chairman has the same kind of responsibilities as the CEO of any big company. He will be held to account. The shareholders of “CEP Inc.” are also its main clients. If they are to have confidence in the CEP, it will have to earn that confidence. The citizens/voters/shareholders have the right to be demanding, and they will exercise that right. They should not accept a major debacle that is then hypocritically called a modest success, “given prevailing conditions in Haiti.”

For the time being, however, the greatest danger facing the CEP is to become smug. “Plan for the worst, act for the best” is the basic rule for preparing any strategy. The CEP seems at this time to be planning for the best. I hope it will continue to be optimistic once the real action begins. For if the rule is reversed, and if they plan for the best and act for the worst, it will be too late. Our problems will be even greater. Let’s all pull together to make sure that doesn’t happen.