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Problematic election seeks to shore up teetering Haiti

Battered by earthquakes and cholera, Haiti desperately needs stability. The country's political system is relatively chaotic, but it's the only hope for bringing improvement to the Western hemisphere's poorest nation.

Supporters of Haitian presidential candidate Michel Martelly blow cornets

Haitians are attracted more by candidates than parties

Ahead of Haiti's presidential and parliamentary election scheduled on Sunday, there were numerous calls to postpone the poll following a string of violent incidents and concerns about voter participation.

As preparations got underway, skeptics were asking how many of the country's 4.7 million eligible voters would even be able to cast their ballots.

And, on Friday evening, gunmen opened fire at the final campaign rally of one candidate, the musician Michel Martelly. Local media reported that one person had been killed and several injured.

The incident is the latest event to underscore the difficulties surrounding the election.

Earlier in the week, gunmen attacked a motorcade belonging to the ruling party's candidate, while there were reports of barricades being erected in one southern town to keep out electoral registration officials accused of being corrupt.

Nonetheless, most of those involved, as well as a majority of international observers, are calling for the elections to go ahead, citing the need for political stability in Haiti.

Previous Haitian elections have failed to result in political stability. That, experts say, is the result of the specific social situation in Haiti.

Defective democracy

Demonstrators burning election campaign photos

There have been sporadic acts of violence in the run-up to the vote

Haiti's election features a recognizable democratic structure, but lacks some essential democratic content.

"Political parties in the European sense are relatively rare," Guenther Maihold, Deputy Director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, told Deutsche Welle. "The parties are more often collective movements around individual candidates, and the main organizational principle is the clientele system. This constellation encourages systematic corruption."

Other experts concur with that assessment.

"Parties often only exist in the run-up to elections," Oliver Gliech, a Haiti expert who teaches at Berlin's Free University, explained. "There are few overarching organizations, and thus it's difficult to build political consensus to overcome clientele politics."

The list of presidential candidates for the election is long enough to frustrate any quick overview. Among the leading contenders are Martelly, the industrialist Charles Henri Baker, former Haitian first lady Mirlande Maginat and Jude Celestin, the preferred successor of outgoing president Rene Preval.

But Gliech cautions against concluding that Haiti is a failed state in the sense of a Somalia or Afghanistan. Instead, he terms the island nation a "defective democracy."

And the root of those deficiencies is historical.

The Black Republic

Damaged Haitian National Palace

The badly damaged National Palace is a symbol of Haiti's dysfunctional state

A former French colony, Haiti achieved independence relatively early on after a slave rebellion in 1804, and Gliech points out that at least in terms of its legal framework, the country does not lag that far behind the norms of Europe.

But Haiti also suffers from the continuing legacy of slavery and the demise of the plantation system.

"Without question, the atomization of political life, the over-emphasis on particular interests among elites, unwillingness to form coalitions and lack of trust in the state are latter-day remnants of the colonial past," Gliech wrote in an essay published earlier this year.

That has meant that in the past the military often deposed elected leaders, or that Haitian presidents, having to battle a majority, if divided opposition, have resorted to dictatorial means to maintain power.

"In order to form a stable government, the Haitian president has to unite two political moments," Maihold explained. "He has to negotiate with the parliament to install a prime minister, and he has to align himself with a host of local strongmen."

The precarious social position of the executive helps account for why Haiti lacks a stable and effective government, a fact that became all too tragically apparent earlier this year.

The best and only chance

Haitian women living in a tent

Systematic problems have hindered Haitian reconstruction

The experts agree that the weakness of the Haitian government is one major reason why last winter's earthquake and this autumn's cholera outbreak have been so devastating.

Although international aid has poured into Haiti, the weak state has had difficulty coordinating it - to say nothing of laying the groundwork for lasting social improvements. As an example, Gliech cites the fact that although ordinances for building earthquake-proof houses exist, there are no authorities able to enforce them.

This has led to political apathy and anger among the general population. Yet democratic elections remain Haiti's best, and perhaps only, chance.

"Haiti needs legitimate authorities, and the international community should not be functioning as a kind of replacement government," Maihold said. "The election could help dissipate the anger at foreign aid workers, whom nationalists sometimes unfortunately portray as intruders in the country."

Recent weeks have seen isolated attacks on foreign peacekeepers and aid workers, whom some Haitians blame for their continuing misery - and even for bringing the cholera virus to Haiti.

"It is absolutely crucial to shore up governmental institutions and create constitutional normality," Gliech said. "What are the alternatives? Civil society is hardly in the position to rebuild the country, and private industry, which often exploits ordinary Haitians, is by no means able to."

No one expects this weekend's election to be a cure-all. But it may represent a faint ray of hope for a nation that has seen far, far more than its fair share of dark clouds in 2010.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge

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