On March 20, 2011, Haitians will go to the polls for the second round of presidential and legislative elections. They will be choosing between Mirlande Manigat and Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly for President, as well as selecting legislative candidates. Rosny Desroches, leader of the local organization Initiative for Civil Society, declared "the stakes are high for Haitians in this election." With the memories of the disturbances and irregularities in the first round still fresh, civil society leaders believe that the best way to improve the process for the second round is through close monitoring by local trained observers, who can insert accountability and transparency into the process.
Haiti has had a difficult year. The process of reconstruction is underway, but there is much that remains to be done. I arrived for my first tour as a Foreign Service Officer in July of 2009, and saw firsthand the devastation that the 2010 earthquake wreaked on Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas. Some of that devastation is still visible over a year later as main routes within the city are bordered by piles of rubble where houses used to be, and sprawling IDP camps where open fields once were. I spent the first half of my tour in the Consular Section, and moved about eight months ago to the Political Section, where I am a reporting officer focusing on civil society and human rights issues. Political stability is key to the continuing forward momentum of many crucial projects in Haiti. As such, the U.S. Government recognizes the importance of the electoral process to development and reconstruction in Haiti. USAID, through its partner the National Democratic Institute (NDI), funded the training of many of the domestic observers from Haitian civil society organizations who participated in the first round. The sheer number of volunteer, domestic monitors (over 5,000) ensured coverage of nearly all of the voting centers in Haiti. Domestic observers also brought valuable language skills and cultural knowledge to their work. Without fluency in Haitian Creole and a familiarity with the context, it can be very difficult to spot fraud or irregularities. For this reason, the U.S. Government believes strongly in the importance of investing in domestic observers.
The irregularities and disruptive incidents which occurred during the first round of the elections on November 28, 2010 were well-documented by election monitors. As a member of Embassy Port-au-Prince's reporting observation team, I saw local observers at all of the polling stations I visited. After the elections, the National Network for the Defense of Human Rights (RNDDH in French) published a comprehensive report documenting incidents throughout the country. The coalition of domestic observer organizations held a press conference to discuss their concerns, as well as to publish the results of their end-of-day counts. Their numbers, which contradicted the officially published numbers, were a tipping point in the discussion of whether the first round results published by the Provisional Electoral Council needed to be re-examined. In the end, President Preval asked OAS-CARICOM to provide a team to review the electoral results, and based on an examination of the results, they recommended that the findings of the coalition be implemented as they more accurately reflected the will of the Haitian people.
In the lead up to the second round, the embassy has been working closely with domestic observation groups, gathering with them and international observers for regular meetings to plan a coordinated approach and develop a consistent message. Haitian members of civil society have been admirably engaged and committed to improving the second round. They developed a list of 19 recommendations that they shared with the Provisional Electoral Council, prompting reforms in technical areas as well as oversight. In addition, the civil society coalition planned a successful event on March 15 that drew a large number of members of the press, as well as the diplomatic corps and a representative from the Director General's office of the Provisional Electoral Council. USAID continues to fund training and technical assistance through NDI. With the election only a day away, we hope that our investment in local observers, who will be at polls throughout the country and will implement a quick count at the end of the day, will pay off in the form of transparency and increased legitimacy for the electoral process.