Originally: Voters and candidates

This year the number of candidates for election, all told, will be higher than ever. Many Haitians prefer to start their own political organization rather than join existing ones. However, in order to avoid having too many candidates, the electoral decree seeks to encourage parties to link up and consolidate. Yet up to now only a small number of political factions have formed such coalitions. To parody the armed forces, some would rather be commanders of a small army than sergeants in a big one.

Worse, despite the large number of parties, there are still likely to be a lot of unaffiliated candidates (a better term, I think, than “independent” candidates). Some parties think they are much more important than others, and much better equipped to run the country. So they do not see the need to form coalitions in the run-up to the elections. Of course they have the right to think that way. The problem is that it’s very hard to measure the real weight of these different parties.

It will also be difficult to decide between candidates according to the priorities they espouse. Circumstances in the country are such that all candidates are virtually condemned to deal in common places and issue declarations of principle about the need to create jobs, to fight unemployment and the high cost of living, to reduce poverty, to protect the environment, to build roads and schools, to combat illiteracy, and so on.

It may not be a bad thing that so many Haitians want to stand for election, but there are some legitimate concerns about having too many candidates and too many political parties. The proliferation of candidates runs the risk of trivializing a process on which Haiti’s chances for a new start may well depend. It might also seem surprising that organizations that call for national reconciliation and talk about building consensus cannot even reach agreement on a common platform and a common slate of candidates.

Another effect of this proliferation is that many candidates will not be risking much in the coming selections. Some of them have absolutely nothing to lose. That’s what makes them a real threat to the clarity of the process. They will do anything to get themselves talked about. They will put up the grandest theoretical defenses of national sovereignty, they will be the greatest champions of the “dignity” of the Haitian people. They will carry on in general terms about every topic under the sun, and say just about anything.

They will use all kinds of tricks in their campaigns. Like the one-time candidate for deputy in the commune of Croix des Bouquets, who exclaimed indignantly, “This country is going straight down the drain. In the right triangle of Croix des Bouquets even the hypotenuse has not been paved.” After he became deputy, he confessed to his colleagues that, in reality, Croix des Bouquets was more diamond-shaped than triangular, so he could not in good conscience demand paving of a hypotenuse that did not exist.

But they have other tricks as well, such as the one a presidential candidate used in 1999 in a campaign swing through the Grand Nord. It seems he had worked up a complete file on the social and economic situation in the region: its farming potential, the main food crops, the health situation, the state of infrastructure. He had all the figures at hand at his rallies. When he arrived at Borgne, he saluted the thick throng that had turned out, paused, saluted them again, and paused again. Then, slowly sweeping his gaze over the crowd, he started to drone out the first notes of a very popular song of the time by Manno Charlemagne: “Tonnè kraze-m Michèl Benèt, I am sorry for you. Se lan videyo wa gade pèp aysyien.” The crowd and his own entourage picked up the refrain in a frenzy. The meeting lasted a few minutes.

Other candidates will not hesitate to take our long list of national heroes and pick out the ones they feel will best serve the cause of the moment. The day before yesterday it was Dessalines. Yesterday it was Toussaint-Louverture. Tomorrow it will no doubt be Pétion’s and Christophe’s turn. In any case, we should not be surprised if in a few years someone in power revives Lamour Dérance or Yayou and calls them the greatest heroes of our independence. (Candor compels me to reveal my personal preference, which goes to Petit-Noël Prieur).

But seriously, it’s time our politicians gave up this bad habit of throwing our ancestors into competition with each other by declaring preferences. This is nothing more than a subtle exercise in sowing discord, while they talk on about uniting all Haitians.

That said, and despite the proliferation of candidates, we must not lose sight of the fact that, once a party is legally recognized and once its candidate meets the conditions prescribed by law, no one can keep them from running. And they must have the same rights and the same privileges as all those who aspire to the same office. In the eyes of the law there are no big parties or little parties, and no one should presume to treat one candidate differently from the others because he lacks fame or qualifications.

There are no more zealous servants to banish. The elections are what will determine the ultimate ranking of the parties. No candidate, then, should be able to claim preferential treatment either because of his exceptional qualities or because of some monopoly on patriotism or popular sensibility. It is up to the voters to choose among the many candidates vying for their votes and to select those who in their opinion will best represent their constituency and will do the least harm to the country.

If they are to do that, the voters will have to help in a sense to educate the candidates. First, by showing them the respect to which they are entitled. These are fellow citizens who aspire to lead our country, each in their own sphere, either as president, as legislators, as mayors, or as casecs (local councilors). Showing them respect and courtesy can only encourage them to have greater self-respect and to put more effort into doing their jobs. At least that’s what we must hope.

This does not mean we have to take everything they tell us at face value. On the contrary, we must insist that they adopt clear positions on such sensitive issues as the army, the police, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), the university, State reform, the environment, security and even the Interim Cooperation Framework (ICF), to name just a few. Candidates must be the bringers of change, and the voters must insist that they put forward concrete and specific proposals.

The voters must also weigh the character of candidates, their qualities and their defects, bearing in mind that not having certain defects is sometimes more important than having certain qualities.