Nearly three years into his term, Haitian President Michel Martelly has yet to hold parliamentary or local elections. Endless negotiations with a fractured political opposition amid an atmosphere of mutual suspicion and recrimination have produced tentative progress, for which Martelly was rewarded with an Oval Office meeting with President Barack Obama this month. Yet there is still no agreement on electoral rules or a voting date set in a country whose fragile institutions can ill afford what amounts to a moratorium on democracy.
Martelly is not exclusively to blame. He is accused of high-handed maneuvering, but his political opponents also have engaged in obdurate gamesmanship. Power-sharing has not featured prominently in Haiti’s unhappy political history. The result, which fits that pattern, is an impasse in which a third of the seats in the Senate remain unfilled and scores of mayors have been appointed to their jobs by the president, rather than elected.
Unless the stalemate is broken and elections are scheduled soon, the status quo is a recipe for unrest and violence. Martelly had to contend with waves of street protests last year and in 2012, and the likelihood for more strife increases the longer elections are deferred. After four difficult years of recovering and rebuilding from the January 2010 earthquake and grappling with the world’s worst current cholera epidemic, the last thing Haiti needs is further political upheaval.
One hopeful sign is that talks on setting elections are being mediated by Cardinal Chibly Langlois, a revered figure in Haiti who has the moral authority to nudge the process toward resolution. The Obama administration can play a key role by continuing to insist on progress toward elections.
Martelly has made definite progress in hastening Haiti’s recovery from the earthquake’s staggering devastation. Roads and buildings are being rebuilt, the rubble is mainly gone from the streets of Port-au-Prince and some towns, and the number of homeless people living in squalid tent cities, more than 1 million after the temblor, is down to perhaps 150,000 — though many were forcibly evicted. Foreign private investment is still woefully low, but Martelly has leveraged aid from international benefactors, including unsavory ones such as Venezuela, to create at least a sense of commercial vitality.
He has made a priority of the construction and repair of hundreds of schools to revitalize the education sector, which was left moribund after the quake. Haiti has one of the world’s lowest rates of primary and secondary school enrollment, and despite ongoing efforts by nonprofit groups and international financial institutions, too many schools offer low-quality instruction by under-qualified teachers. Nonetheless, that hundreds of thousands of pupils have been able to return to class is important progress.
Martelly, a popular former carnival singer once known for simultaneously ebullient and vulgar performances, frequently is accused of cronyism and a lack of accountability. He only fuels the criticism by dragging his feet on elections. The sooner a vote is scheduled, the better.