Haiti: Fanmi Lavalas Banned, Voter Apprehension Widespread

(IPS) – Weekend senatorial elections in Haiti are mired in controversy as Fanmi Lavalas (FL), the political party widely backed by the poor majority, has been disqualified.

As the global financial crisis unfolds, U.N. officials in New York City and Port-au-Prince are struggling to defend a troubled electoral process while gathering donor aid.

Meanwhile, a recent study by the Florida-based advocacy organisation Haiti Priorities Project (HPP) has found widespread popular apprehension and disaffection among Haitians ahead of the upcoming senatorial elections.

During eight days in early April, seventy HPP volunteers, 10 from the United States and 60 from Haiti, dispersed across the country. Their goal was to survey how people viewed the upcoming election.

"Only 5 percent of potential voters nationwide say they are ready to go to the polls in order to elect 12 senators for the upcoming elections on April of this year," said the group in a press release. Many of the respondents had never heard of the candidates fielded in the election.

Jacob François of the HPP explained to IPS, "We organised our census primarily through town hall meetings, where organisers spoke to people in groups and individually. From this we tallied the opinions of what was estimated to be 65,000 people out of a population of 8 million."

In February it was announced that Haiti’s Conseil électoral provisoire (CEP) would not recognise candidates from FL in the upcoming senatorial elections. The reason given was that the candidates – listed in two different slates – did not have the signature of the party’s head, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted by the George W. Bush administration in 2004.

FL is in a process of reorganisation that even sympathetic observers have termed "disarray." After the initial failure of the two separate FL slates to gain CEP approval, the factions came together agreeing upon a unified slate. The slate was signed by Emmanuel Cantave – keeper of the party’s seals – who has approved FL slates for the past 13 years.

Still, the CEP rejected the list. Its stated objection was that the list lacked Aristide’s signature; giving just days notice, it requested a non-fascimilied signature from Aristide, exiled in Pretoria, South Africa.

U.N. officials initially urged the CEP to include all parties.

Praising the efforts of FL to be included within the electoral process, the U.N. representative for a Security Council delegation, Jorge Urbina, stated that they "were glad to hear from (Lavalas) that they are using every legal instrument in their power to reverse this decision."

In a press release, the secretary general of the Organisation of American States, José Miguel Insulza, stated, "I cannot help but express my concern about the possibility that an important group of Haitian citizens might feel that they are not being represented in this process."

By early March, Haitian Judge Jean-Claude Douyon had ruled that the CEP could not disqualify the FL candidates. Concluding that "[t]he political rights of the Lavalas have been violated," he ordered the "reintegration of candidates of that party, if they each individually meet the legal standards."

However, not long after, Judge Douyon was mysteriously removed from his post, and the CEP disregarded his ruling.

In recent weeks, following a visit from U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, a consensus cemented among government elites to go forward with elections without FL. Criticism of the exclusion ceased.

In late March, U.N. press agencies reported that 100 tonnes of election equipment had arrived in the country, divided into 12,000 voting kits.

CEP and U.N. officials now lay blame at the feet of ousted President Aristide. The U.N.’s Urbina says that FL’s exclusion was due to Aristide’s unwillingness to sign.

Some proponents say Aristide, who has been kept from returning to the country, does not wish to give his support to elections under which holdovers from the U.N.-backed dictatorship of 2004-2006 remain and the potential for fraud and vote rigging are high.

Top leaders of his movement have been systematically targeted, in part explaining FL’s internal dissension. The highest former office holder of FL, Yvon Neptune, spent two years in jail, and has a case hanging over his head despite it being ordered dismissed two years ago by a Haitian appeals court, and almost a year since the Inter-American Court of Human Rights told Haiti to halt the case. Another FL leader, Father Gérard Jean-Juste, who spent seven months in jail with untreated cancer, is sick in a hospital in Florida.

At the same time, FL political prisoners, such as Ronald Daulphin, remain in jail after five years without being tried. A justice process for thousands imprisoned and killed under the interim government remains out of sight.

Even so, since Aristide’s ouster, a few senators have, without Aristide’s endorsement, run in elections claiming to represent FL without any objection made by the CEP. Only in recent months, with violence decreased, has FL come together nationally to participate in elections.

François of the HPP, discussing the U.N. and Haitian government’s actions, explains, "They just do not learn. They can’t exclude a major party in Haiti from an election, that’s total exclusion. It will undermine the entire process. In addition, the CEP has no business going into the internal affairs of Lavalas."

The tenuous political alliance between Haiti’s President René Préval and FL has collapsed.

Elected in 2006, Préval had the support of the impoverished majority who hoped, through his candidacy, for a return to normality and an end to post-coup repression that left thousands dead.

Once elected, critics say, Préval’s administration imposed the priorities of foreign donors and elites. The emphasis today is on garment exportation.

Thousands of Lavalas activists have mobilised against the disqualification, more demonstrations are planned for the weekend.

With the credibility of the upcoming elections badly damaged, foreign donors have attempted to smooth things over with a hastily organised conference pledging aid disbursement.

Speaking to donors and NGOs, whose influence in Haiti is colossal, U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon explained, "Haiti is at a turning moment…by acting now, we will protect the considerable investment and progress we have made so far."

Meanwhile, grassroots Haitian activists, such as a Ronique, a member of a women’s collective in Cité Soleil, condemn what they claim has been a thwarting of democracy led by Préval, the CEP and the U.N.

"In the matter of elections, basically what you have is a decision to explode Fanmi Lavalas, that is the way we in Haiti see it, that this was a decision by the international community with the complicity of President René Préval to get rid of and exclude Lavalas from the election because everyone knows FL is the majority party in the country," she said in a radio interview.

She added, "People are not enthused, it is a complete silence around this election. You don’t see candidates going through the neighbourhoods where the people are suffering. Nobody is interested because they don’t see themselves participating in this process."

With sadness in her voice she mentions Lovinsky Pierre-Antoine, one of the most internationally recognised FL leaders. He was abducted in late 2007, just after announcing his intention to run in senatorial elections, and remains missing. A leading human rights activist, he worked tirelessly to bring former death squad leaders to justice.

IPS has found that one death squad leader has been living in a luxurious hotel overlooking Port-au-Prince. Louis Jodel Chamblain, a founder of the infamous FRAPH death squad that murdered and raped thousands during the early 1990s, was interviewed by IPS a year ago at the Ibo Lele Hotel. Within earshot, U.N. officials and NGO dignitaries dined and slept.

*Wadner Pierre in Miami contributed to this story.