It's taken me longer to get around to writing this post than I had hoped, but after an exhausting weekend of monitoring and the subsequent writing of a 6-page report in Kreyol, I haven't felt like reliving it in English. As a whole, the experience was a huge disappointment. Not because we didn't see any action (on the contrary, flying rocks, rubber bullets and torn up ballots abounded), but because it left me wondering if democracy in Haiti is a totally hopeless proposition. Have I mentioned that all of my coworkers at POHDH (theoretically one of Haiti's leading human rights institutions) think Haiti would be better off with another dictator? They argue that under Duvalier, less people were starving, the roads were in better condition and electricity was readily available. Knowing the atrocities carried out by the Duvaliers, it's been hard for me to stomach this analysis, but then I'm not Haitian... In Haiti's case, the right to food, shelter and clean drinking water probably should supersede the civil and political rights that come with "democracy."
But back to the subject at hand: the April 2009 Senatorial Elections in the Artibonite Valley.
By 6 AM Josh, Yvon, Leronal and I are at the voting center in Desarmes (the National School) to watch it open. All centers are supposed to be open from 6AM-4PM. The local officials running the election are just starting to show up (and so are voters), ballots haven't been counted, a list of registered voters' names hasn't been posted and the center is in chaos. There are 2 Nepalese MINUSTAH (UN peacekeeping mission to Haiti) soldiers and 1 PNH (Haiti National Police) officer stationed at the center.
Voting opens a little after 7 AM, by which time some of the earliest voters to arrive have already left. Each classroom is divided into at least 2 voting stations, with very little privacy. The mandate (candidates' party members who are present for monitoring purposes) stand too close to the voters and we see several attempting to influence people's votes. Illiterate voters (about 60% of the population) must announce to the room which candidate they intend to vote for and the mandate for that candidate comes forward to show them where to mark the ballot.
Voting stations are divided alphabetically, but most voters don't know this. There is no list of voter's names posted outside of the classroom doors, and the guides funded by EU and USAID money to direct voters are nowhere to be found.
I am astounded by the number of people with voters registration cards that are turned away because their names do not appear on the list of registered voters. There also appears to be some confusion among voters as to whether they are supposed to vote in Desarmes or Valere (several kilometers away, up a mountain). I meet one woman who has walked from Desarmes to Valere and back to Desarmes trying to to find out where she is registered to vote. She never does figure it out.
In a way, none of this matters because by 2 PM independent party members have stormed the center, ripped up and/or stolen all of the ballots and someone has been shot.
Similar issues but less chaotic. A fight breaks out among several mandate while we're here. At one point I'm in a voting station where no-one is voting and for lack of anything else to do, I write "Everyone is staring at me" on my notepad.
Enroute from Valere to Verettes 9:30-10:00AM:
We are behind 3 UN trucks near Douen and an angry crowd is building a roadblock. We are told that a group of independent party members just stormed the voting center in Douen, fired shots in the air and stole the ballot boxes. It appears that the UN are here to pick up the soldiers that were stationed at the center. The crowd is throwing rocks at the UN vehicles and Josh backs up. Several soldiers jump out, fire rubber bullets into the crowd and dismantle the roadblock. The crowd lets us pass with no problems. We encounter several more crowds and roadblocks before Verettes and try to keep our distance from the UN vehicles.
Verettes 10 AM:
More of the same until a group of about 10 unarmed young men (teenagers, really) enter the center. They divide up, force their way into the voting stations, overturn furniture to scare people and start ripping up ballots. Onlookers tell us that they are with the independent party whose candidate, Michelet Louis, is featured as a tractor on the ballot (there are photos on the ballots as a way to help voters that can't read or write recognize their preferred candidate). The armed MINUSTAH soldiers at the center do nothing to stop this and I seriously start to question the point of having them posted at each voting center. I don't see PNH officers anywhere. The boys steal the ballots that they don't rip up and rumor has it they take them off to burn them. I walk into an empty voting station, the floor covered with torn ballots and I almost start crying, I'm so frustrated.
Late morning. We pull up just in time to see another group of guys, older this time and angrier looking, storm the center. They miss three stations, but less than 20 ballots have been filled out in these stations and no-one else is going to come try to vote now. The UN soldiers stationed here look bored.
Uneventful 2-hour drive to Gonaives. Aside from a few UN tanks and a pickup truck here and there, we're the only vehicle on the road. Public transportation has been banned country-wide today for security reasons, so many voters have to walk for miles to reach the center where they're registered to vote. Most don't bother.
Thankfully, we miss the biggest incident in Gonaives by about an hour: a serious fight among party members in one of the voting centers. By the time we get to that center, it's practically under lock-down.
We visit 3 voting centers. Voter participation has been low and everyone seems bored. I walk into one station where all of the officials are asleep. We get complaints from people working in the stations that they haven't been brought any food or water and voters here still have to visit several centers to find out where they are registered (I see the same woman in all 3 centers), but at least here they don't have as far to go between centers. One of the centers that we visit, L'Ecole Ebeneezer, actually has guides directing voters to the correct stations!
Saint Mark 3:30-4:30:
When the polls close at 4:00, we're in Saint Mark to observe the counting of ballots. It doesn't take long: the station that I'm in only has 34 ballots to count. Each voter has had the right to choose two candidates or to mark a blank box, indicating that they do not support any candidate. The station's president holds up each ballot to be viewed by me and the mandate that are present and reads aloud which candidates have been selected. The secretary keeps a tally. At the end, they add up the votes and compare the official results with the tallies the mandate have been keeping. One of the mandate has come up with different numbers, so everyone recounts their tallies and agree.
It is announced that they began the day with 481 ballots. After counting the blank ballots that are left, they come up with a total of 488 ballots. If anyone notices the discreptancy, they don't mention it. As a monitor, all I'm allowed to do is watch and take notes, so I don't say anything either.
Driving back through Verettes at the end of day, the only sign that an attempted election has taken place is a a flattened ballot box in the middle of the road. The UN vehicles that we were following earlier, now dented from being hit by rocks, are in front of the police station.
This election cost $16 million.
If you're interested, here's the UNDP's take on the elections: UNDP audio slideshow