Paper presented at opening of Haiti Study Group, April 29, 2008, held at Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

During the past year, President Préval has embarked on a path of impeding elections, undermining parliament, and challenging the constitution. These acts have constituted a major distraction from far more urgent priorities posed by the economic emergency.

Below we outline five areas of concern.

1. Presidential challenge to the constitution

On October 17, 2007 President Préval gave a speech calling the Haitian constitution the most destabilizing political element in Haiti, singling out its ban on consecutive presidential terms. Under the present constitution, Préval?s term ends in 2011. Because he was previously president, he would be ineligible to run again. In calling for changes to the constitution, President Préval left open the possibility of avoiding the lengthy amendment process prescribed by the constitution in favor of some quicker method.

2. Failure to form the Permanent Electoral Commission

On December 3, 2006, local elections were successfully held and local government officials were elected. This for the first time in many years made it possible to choose local councils which could nominate a Permanent Electoral Commission. Elections for these councils are the government?s responsibility. Haitian political commentators expected that the electoral commission emerging from the councils would be pluralistic, reflecting the variety of parties at the local level. The elections have never been held, however, and instead President Préval assembled a new temporary electoral commission whose members are assumed to be beholden to him.

3. Loss of integrity of electoral mechanism

In December 2007, a well-regarded manager, Jacques Bernard, who successfully administered Haiti?s elections in 2006, was reappointed administrator of the electoral commission. In January 2008 he resigned when President Préval put in new bylaws eliminating his authority. The loss of Bernard was a major blow to the prospects for free and open elections.

4. Failure to hold senatorial elections

On January 11, 2008, the terms of a third of the senate technically expired. The elections had not been held because of the disarray noted in numbers 2 and 3 above. With the loss of a third of its membership, the senate?s quorum would be threatened; however, in this bicameral legislature the House of Deputies cannot function alone, so the threat to the senate was a threat to the entire legislature. A compromise was reached to leave the last third of the senators in office until May 9, 2008.

5. Expulsion of senate vice-president

On March 18, 2008, a propaganda and pressure campaign personally orchestrated by President Préval culminated in a senate vote to expel the vice-president of the senate. This was Sen. Rudolph H. Boulos, elected overwhelmingly from the Nord-Est Department in 2006. (He is also a founding member of the Haiti Democracy Project.) The vote was illegal because the constitution forbids the senate from expelling members. Nevertheless, such a lynch atmosphere developed that Senator Boulos had to immediately flee Haiti to avoid arrest and likely mistreatment in jail. President Préval considered him a rival.

The Haiti Democracy Project is deeply concerned that Haiti maintain a free parliament, repeat its accomplishment of free and fair elections, and uphold the constitution. Together these institutions embody a certain consensus of the society even when opinion turns against the president, as it has today. With the legitimacy of the government rapidly declining, Haiti finds itself unable to cope with the humanitarian emergency of high food prices. Our goal is a government capable of channelizing the deep and justified grievances of the people into the arenas of resolution provided by the constitution. Again and again we have seen in Haiti that elections denied or distorted have triggered deeper upheavals of the people so disenfranchised. This political destabilization will add fuel to the fire of popular protest over economic issues that has spread so alarmingly in Haiti?s major cities.