Haiti’s Elections: Low Turnout Reflects Lack Of Hope For Change – Analysis


By Elena Tiralongo*

Presidential elections should be an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have a say in the future of their country. The period before an election is a time for citizens to hear what presidential candidates have planned for their country and to decide which of them represents his or her best interests. In Haiti, presidential elections represent for some a chance to run for office and therefore the opportunity to get a secure job; yet, for many Haitians the elections represent nothing, because they feel that nothing will change. In fact, Haitians participating in the first voting round of the parliamentary elections comprise only 18 percent of the registered voters while 54 candidates ran for President.[1] [2] This article aims to explain such low political participation and analyzes the reasons why Haitians have little trust in the democratic process.

In order to ensure fair and transparent democratic elections, the United States and the international community provided over 30 million USD to the Conseil Electoral Provisoire (CEP) for the 2015 elections.[3] However, there were two main obstacles that may have prevented legitimate electoral outcome. First, Haitians were often paid to participate in rallies or to vote. Therefore, election results may not be dictated by Haitians’ desire to witness a change in their country, but rather by their need for money to stave off hunger. Second, according to a report published on August 25 by the three civil society groups Reseau National de Defense de Droits Humain (RNDDH), the Conseil National d’Obesrvation des Elections (CNO), and the Conseil Haitien des Acteurs Non Etatiques (CONHANE), the elections and the pre-election period have been plagued by killings, intimidation, and violence. [4]

Overall, Haitians have seen that even though the international community has provided money and deployed troops in order to support Haiti’s economic, political stability, and development, these efforts have not always translated into positive results. This has resulted in a lack of trust in Haitian leaders and the international community, which has consequentially discouraged Haitians from engaging in the democratic process. Therefore, in order to better grasp what drives Haitians away from a robust political life, it is also important to understand Haiti’s current status and its struggles towards authentic development.

Haiti’s Current Economic and Social Situation

Haitians are discouraged to participate in political life partially due to low socio-economic development in the country. In fact, many Haitians struggle to come out of poverty and social inequality as they have little opportunities to change their situation. The devastating 2010 earthquake stalled Haiti’s development once again. However, since 2010, Haiti has experienced an increase in per-capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from $669.19 USD to $846 USD in 2014. Nevertheless, 59% of Haitians currently survive on less than $2.42 USD per day, which is below the poverty line, and 24 percent of them live on $1.23 USD per day, which is below the extreme poverty line.[5]

The Human Development Index (HDI) ranks countries according to social and economic aspects such as health, education, and standard of living, ranging from a scale of 0 to 1. In 2014 Haiti ranked 168 out of 187 countries with an HDI of 0.471. (For context, in 2014, Norway had the highest HDI in the world at 0.944). Haiti suffers 57 infant deaths per 1,000 births, compared with two in Norway. In Haiti, 42 percent of children lack basic immunization and average just below 5 years of schooling. As for child labor, slightly over 24 percent of children between 5 and 14 years old are engaged in the work force.[6]

The International Community and Haiti

Haiti, among the world’s most impoverished countries today, was once the pearl of the Antilles. Haiti has been taken over multiple times throughout history. The country has been a treasure for its colonizers who brought slavery and oppression to the country.[7] After obtaining its independence from France in 1804, Haiti struggled to achieve stability after decades of coups d’état, dictatorships, and internal fights, not to mention a series of natural disasters. Outside interventions have continued into the 21st century. These interventions have at times aimed to contribute to Haiti’s development, while other times, made matters worse. Ineffective international assistance, lack of political leadership, and repeated failures to hold parliamentary elections have created a vicious pattern. In fact, the international community cannot operate without effective infrastructures, which at the same time cannot be built without international intervention. This vicious cycle has tended to contribute to Haitians’ mistrust in the system and therefore perpetuates low political participation.

The European Union: In recent years, the EU has established development collaborations with Haiti. This includes both the bilateral relations that each EU member state has had with Haiti, as well as donations from the European Development Fund. After the 2010 earthquake, the Country Strategy for 2008-2013 was revised to focus on transport infrastructure, governance, state building, and cross-border cooperation with the Dominican Republic. To support Haiti’s development, the EU donated more than €500 million Euros between 2000 and 2010. After the earthquake, the EU donated another €522 million Euros in humanitarian aid to help the natural disaster’s victims rebuild their country. Additionally, the EU has provided civil protection and helped with economic and social development by supporting education and civil society aiming to promote human rights and democracy. In 2012, the EU member states and Caribbean nations formed the Caribbean-European Union Partnership Strategy, which strengthens relationships between the two regions on areas such as Regional Integration, Haiti Reconstruction, Climate Change and Natural Disasters, Crime and Security, and Join Action regarding Multilateral Fora.[8] On a regional level, it is important to note that in 2008, the Caribbean region (Haiti included) signed the Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) with the regional organization CARIFORUM (of 15 Caribbean nations)[9] and the European Union. This agreement was meant to encourage trade, investments, and development assistance by promoting regional integration.[10]

While Europe as a whole has shown interest in contributing to Haiti’s development, France has a higher moral obligation to help Haitians due to their bitter shared colonial past. After Haiti achieved independence from France in 1804, Paris demanded that Haiti pay 150 million gold francs (10 times the country’s annual revenue) to compensate losses suffered by French plantation and slave owners as a consequence of Haiti’s independence. Those 150 million gold francs may be worth roughly $17 billion USD today. When French President Francois Hollande visited Haiti in May, he stated that France would repay its moral debt to Haiti and that it would do so by contributing to Haiti’s development. However, President Hollande has not specified if or when the $17 billion USD will be repaid, and many in Haiti believe that France should do much more.[11]

UN Member States with IMF and World Bank Group: A Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper for 2014-2016 was prepared in cooperation with stakeholders and development partners to establish a three-year investment program to help Haiti achieve economic growth and reduce poverty. The plan aims to help Haiti reach its goal of becoming an emerging country by 2030. After the 2010 earthquake, the international community prepared the Action Plan for the Recovery and Development of Haiti (PARDH), which would attempt to turn the Haiti’s natural tragedy into an opportunity to rebuild the country from its foundations up. The long-term development plan has 32 separate programs, 150 subprograms, and focuses on four main areas: territorial reform, economic reform, social reform, and institutional reform. The territorial reform focuses on urban and rural development, environmental protection, water sanitation and watersheds correction, transportation, and communication. The economic reform comprises the support for internal or external private investment, revival of the Haitian economy through the modernization of farming, fishing, and animal husbandry, and the development of manufacturing and tourism, all achieved through sustainable development. The social reform aims to modernize education and healthcare systems while treasuring Haiti’s cultural assets. The institutional reform will revise Haiti’s legal and judiciary framework, modernize security services, and strengthen local governments and civil society. Overall, these reforms should create jobs and promote economic growth.[12] The World Bank Group proposed a Country Partnership Framework (CPF) from 2016 to 2019. This program should aim to help Haiti reach its development goals by 2030.[13]

The United Nations: UN involvement in Haiti began in the 1990s with the overthrow of the first elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Several UN peacekeeping operations were aimed to promote stability after civilian turmoil erupted in the aftermath of the anti-Aristide military coup d’état. In 1994 the Security Council deployed the Multinational Interim Force (MIF) to restore stability in the country. In 2004, this duty was extended to the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH mandate).[14] At that point, MINUSTAH’s goal was to support political stability. However, MINUSTAH has not been able to leave the country owing to Haiti’s inability to build a self-sufficient and stable structure. At the same time, MINUSTAH won new responsibilities in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake, even though many in Haiti blame the organization for the spread of cholera due to low hygienic standards in camps. Additionally, some of the troops were accused of sexual assault and forced to leave the country. As a result, many Haitians want MINUSTAH to leave.[15] However, the UN Security Council has just extended MINUSTAH’s mandate until October 2016 and will evaluate this year’s presidential elections in order to judge if Haiti has made enough progress to retain stability and security on its own. [16] [17]

The United States and Haiti

U.S.-Haitian relations are at least 100 years old, during which Haitians have not seemed to develop a meaningful trust in the U.S.’ intentions. Throughout this long relationship, the United States, together with the international community, has often contributed to Haiti’s political sphere. For example, when President Aristide was overthrown in a 1991 military coup supported by the Haitian elite, the Organization of American States (OAS) placed economic sanctions and embargos on Haiti, limiting economic relations with most of the hemisphere in efforts to bring back Aristide.[18] Aristide returned in 1994 and served as president again from 2001 to 2004, when he was forced into exile by a popular uprising. In 2006 The New York Times interviewed Haitians during a rally and many of those interviewed believed that President Aristide had been kidnapped. His supporters wanted him back as the only hope for a better future in a country that has been suffering hunger for 200 years. President Aristide’s removal spurred anti-American feelings among Haitians due to alleged U.S. involvement.[19]

Later in 2010, the U.S. Embassy in Haiti condemned the first round of election results amid widespread allegations that President Préval and Pierre-Louis Opont, director of the Election Commission, were involved in altering the original results and were accused of being in favor of Jude Celestin, who came second before Michel Martelly.[20] In late January 2011, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton travelled to Haiti to make sure that the votes of the Haitians were being tabulated. In the end, with the recommendation of the OAS, Michel Martelly was awarded a position in a run-off election, officially replacing Celestin, who had dropped out of the race despite his performance in attracting a number of votes. After the second-round contest and an exceptionally low turnout, Martelly was elected Haiti’s president. Email correspondence between former U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten and key State Department officers in Haiti, as well as his communications with Michel Martelly’s campaign staffers, revealed instances of U.S. intervention in the processes that accompanied the disputed elections of 2010.[21] [22]

Moreover, documents released through the Freedom of Information Act revealed that in 2011, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) allocated $100,000 USD to the Mouvement Tét Kale (MTK), which was a political organization that had backed Martelly’s election. The USAID branch Office of Transition Initiatives (OTI) funded the MTK candidate through a for-profit organization called Chemonics International. USAID policy says funding is supposed to be distributed equally to all political groups in Haiti on a non-partisan basis. Nevertheless, as per stipulated contract with USAID, Chemonics specifically aims to protect U.S. foreign policy interests. Additionally, the 2009 Congressional Research Service says OTI operations have been shown to have “political entanglements that may have diplomatic implications.” One question revolves around the extent to which USAID funds influenced the 2011 election results and ultimately facilitated Martelly’s ascension into the presidency. This election period was characterized by discontent and turmoil and put the U.S. under the spotlight, particularly by critics who questioned Washington’s ultimate intentions in pursuing its political agenda in Haiti.[23]

Additionally, in October 2012, former President Bill Clinton, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Martelly, Prime Minister Lamothe, and the President of the Inter-American Development Bank opened the Caracol Industrial Park in Haiti.[24] This project was a centerpiece of U.S. reconstruction efforts in Haiti after the earthquake. The Industrial Park primarily targets the creation of light manufacturing industries and was expected to immediately create 65,000 jobs by 2020, as well as become a new source of investment in rural Haiti outside of Port-au-Prince. So far, the Korean manufacturer Sae-A Trading Ltd, anchor tenant of the Caracol Industrial Park, has committed to a $78 million USD investment and currently employs some 4,500 Haitians. The Company wants to hire 20,000 additional workers, which is still very much below the final goal of 65,000 jobs by 2020.[25]

Additionally, U.S. foreign policy towards Haitian immigrants has not been consistent. In the past, the US would welcome Haitian refugees on grounds of economic difficulties and political oppression. However, in the most recent years, Haitians refugees had encountered major difficulty being accepted in the United States. This change in attitude towards Haitians shows an enormous discrepancy on how the US has been willing to treat Cuba’s immigrants, who can obtain asylum in a much easier manner. Despite creating an expanded definition of the refugee law in 1980, the US also created Executive Order 12807, which states that those asylum seekers who are stopped in the sea do not qualify for refugee protection. This Order clearly bypasses the intention of the laws that were created to protect refugees. Moreover, the United States’ immigration policy shows immigrants are welcomed based on certain characteristics. Welcoming immigrants on humanitarian grounds may depend on nationality and interest-based factors. For instance, the US is more willing to accept immigrants coming from a country with anti-American politics or rivalry. This happens because accepting these immigrants shows that these citizens prefer the US to their country of origin. The U.S.-Haiti relationship is a perfect example of the saying, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” turning Haitians as a political tool in U.S. tactics. U.S. immigration policy towards Haiti has shown little regards for refugees themselves. [26]

In order to be accepted to the United States, the Coast Guard uses a “shout test,” which aims to pick only the loudest ones for an asylum interview, based on the idea that those who are capable of “screaming” show that they need more help than those who are not sufficiently loud. Also, the Coast Guard does not need to have an interpreter; therefore, many Haitians do not even understand their rights when these are explained to them. In other words, Haitians’ application for refugee status is very difficult compared to other refugee groups. In contrast to Cuban asylum seekers, Haitian refugees are completely disregarded in the high seas. For example, the number of Cubans offered asylum in the US in 2004 was 6,360, while the number of Haitians given asylum was only eight. Many of the Haitian refugees were turned around without even the chance of applying for asylum, also thanks to Executive Order 12807.[27]

National security concerns might explain why Haitians have demonstrably more difficulty in being accepted to the United States. According to the U.S. government, stopping immigrants in the sea is a legitimate method of reducing smuggling issues. Also, traffickers or terrorists may pose as Haitians in order to entry in the United States. However, the question should be raised as to why Haitian nationality is more an indicator of being a smuggler or a terrorist than a Haitian refugee. [28]

Final Assessment

In its decision to extend the MINUSTAH mandate, the UN Security Council stated that Haiti is at a turning point in the democratization process. On one hand, political leaders as well as stakeholders need to compromise some of their expectations and goals for the sake of stability. On the other hand, Haitians should take greater responsibility for the status of their society.[29]

However, natural disasters aside, the Haitians have seen military dictatorships, presidents forced into exile, and invasions by foreign powers come and go. Even when their country was not directly invaded, foreign interventions often made the difference as to who should run the country and how. Additionally, never-ending peacekeeping operations have at times worsened Haitians’ lives. With these realities in mind, it is difficult to blame eligible voters for completely distancing themselves from their nation’s political life.

In order to carry out rigorous economic reforms and counteract inefficiencies in the public sector, Haiti needs a stable, functioning, and trustworthy government. That is also the recipe for attracting foreign investment and creating jobs. The U.S. and the international community should help Haiti develop politically through the fight against corruption by also denying support to political figures, which were known for being involved in illicit markets. Additionally, countries involved in Haiti, including the United States, should set aside narrow national interests for the sake of creating a better Haiti; a safer, stable, and more prosperous Haiti is the only likely way for Haiti’s investors to guarantee profit as well as the only way for Haitians to regain confidence in both their leaders and international community.

For the elections of October 25, the OAS deployed a large electoral observation mission composed of 125 international experts from 27 countries.[30] According to the Head of the OAS observation mission, former Brazilian Minister Celso Amorim, the October 25th election was a step forward and generated a greater voter turnout compared to the August 9 elections.[31] Prime Minister Paul Evans said that the outcome of Election Day was satisfactory. It is too early to see who won in the elections. According to the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) it may take until the end of November to release final results.[32] At the same time, in order to ensure the election’s ultimate success, Haiti’s National Police of Haiti was forced to arrest 234 people, impound 13 firearms, as well as seize 4 vehicles.[33] As of October 26, the day after the second round of Presidential elections, many Haitians were still doubtful any change could be brought by the elections. One week before the October elections, rival gangs supporting different political campaigns disseminated violence and intimidated citizens. Isaih Jenty lost his 7-months-pregnant-wife due to one of these gangs’ assaults. Mr. Jenty, just as many other Haitians, wants a real change that can only come about eliminating criminality.[34] Seeing a real positive change may encourage Haitians to regain a certain sense of confidence in their leaders and hope for a better and brighter future. This may finally spur Haitians’ desires to take more responsibility in the country’s success through their more intense political participation.

*Elena Tiralongo with collaboration from Gvaram KhandamishviliResearch Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

[1] Conseil Electoral Provisoire, Resulats Preliminaires Legislatives.


[2] Reynolds, Rob, “Haitians prepare to vote in long-overdue elections,” Aljazeera, 9 August, 2015,


[3] Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, “Republic of Haiti: The Right to Vote,” Review of Haiti’s Report under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, 112th Session of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, October 8 & 9, 2014


[4] Haiti Libre, October 7, 2015, “Haiti – Elections : Electoral Observation, the Civil Society preoccupied” http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-15384-haiti-elections-electoral-observation-the-civil-society-preoccupied.html

[5] The World Bank, “Overview,” 2015, http://www.worldbank.org/en/country/haiti/overview

[6] United Nations Development Program, Human Development Reports, “Haiti,” http://hdr.undp.org/en/countries/profiles/HTI

[7] PBS, “Haiti’s History,” http://www.pbs.org/frontlineworld/rough/2007/12/haiti_belos_sonlinks.html

[8] European Union External Action, “EU Relations with Haiti,” 2015, http://eeas.europa.eu/haiti/index_en.htm

[9] European Union External Action, “Summary of Treaty,” http://ec.europa.eu/world/agreements/prepareCreateTreatiesWorkspace/treatiesGeneralData.do?redirect=true&treatyId=7407

[10] European Union External Action, “EU Relations with Haiti,” 2015, http://eeas.europa.eu/haiti/index_en.htm

[11] Tharoor, Ishaan, “Is it time for France to pay its real debt to Haiti?” The Washington Post, May 13, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2015/05/13/does-france-owe-haiti-reparations/

[12] International Monetary Fund, “Haiti: Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper,” June 2014, https://www.imf.org/external/pubs/ft/scr/2014/cr14154.pdf

[13] World Bank. 2015. Haiti – Country partnership framework for the period FY16-FY19. Washington, D.C. : World Bank Group. http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2015/10/25010671/haiti-country-partnership-framework-period-fy16-fy19

[14] United Nations, “MINUSTAH: United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti,” http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/missions/minustah/background.shtml

[15] New York Times, “Building a Safer Haiti,” Op Ed, September 19, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/opinion/building-a-safer-haiti.html

[16] Haiti Libre, “Haiti – Security : The UN Security Council extends for one year the mandate of the Minustah,” October 15, 2015, http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-15461-haiti-security-the-un-security-council-extends-for-one-year-the-mandate-of-the-minustah.html

[17] United Nations, “Adopting Resolution 2243 (2015), Security Council Renews Haiti Mission Mandate for One Year at Recommended Troop Levels,” Meetings Coverage and Press Releases, October 14, 2015, http://www.un.org/press/en/2015/sc12078.doc.htm

[18] French, Howard W., “Haiti’s Divisions Deepen Over Aristide’s Removal,” International New York Times, November 3, 1991, http://www.nytimes.com/1991/11/03/world/haiti-s-divisions-deepen-over-aristide-s-removal.html

[19] Thompson, Ginger, “Exiled Aristide Still Affects Haiti Voters,” The New York Times, 2006, http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/06/international/americas/06haiti.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

[20] Haiti Democracy Project, “Tabulation Center Originally Eliminated Célestin, not Martelly,” July 13, 2015, http://haitipolicy.org/2015/07/tabulation-center-originally-eliminated-celestin-not-martelly

[21] Haiti Democracy Project, “U.S. Policy Toward Haiti Elections Faltering Badly,” July 13, 2015, http://haitipolicy.org/2015/07/u-s-policy-toward-haiti-elections-faltering-badly

[22] Center for Economic and Policy Research, “Clinton Emails Reveal ‘Behind the Doors Actions’ of Private Sector and US Embassy in Haiti Elections,” October 8, 2015, http://www.cepr.net/blogs/haiti-relief-and-reconstruction-watch/clinton-emails-reveal-behind-the-doors-actions-of-private-sector-and-us-embassy-in-haiti-elections

[23] Johnston Jake, “Revealed: USAID funded group supporting Haitian president in 2011,” July 15, 2015, http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/7/15/usaid-funded-group-supporting-haitian-president.html

[24] Clinton Foundation, “Caracol Industrial Park,” https://www.clintonfoundation.org/our-work/clinton-foundation-haiti/programs/caracol-industrial-park

[25] O’Grady, Mary Anastasia, “Hillary’s Half-Baked Haiti Project,” The Wall Street Journal, January 11, 2015, http://www.wsj.com/articles/mary-anastasia-ogrady-hillarys-half-baked-haiti-project-1421018329

[26] Daniels, Kaitlin, “The Haitian Dilemma: The Relationship between Politics and Asylum,” Writing 20 (Spring 2008): Framing the Immigration Debate Professor Elizabeth Drogin, Duke University,


[27] Ibid

[28] Ibid

[29] New York Times, “Building a Safer Haiti,” Op Ed, September 19, 2011, http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/20/opinion/building-a-safer-haiti.html

[30] Organization of American States, “The OAS Deploys 125 Observers to Haiti for October 25 Elections,” October 20, 2015,


[31] LatinNews Daily Briefing, “Electoral violence fails to materialize in Haiti,” October 26, 2015

[32] The Washington Post, “Polarized Haiti Votes in Presidential Election,” October, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/polarized-haiti-votes-in-presidential-election/2015/10/25/6e490c04-7b7b-11e5-837b-2c3f2478487e_story.html

[33] Haiti Libre, “Haiti – Elections : 234 arrests Sunday,” http://www.haitilibre.com/en/news-15576-haiti-elections-234-arrests-sunday.html

[34] Partlow, Joshua, “Haitian voters try to turn page on turmoil,” The Washington Post, October 26, 2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/haitian-voters-try-to-turn-page-on-period-of-political-turmoil/2015/10/25/b61b34f8-7b26-11e5-837b-2c3f2478487e_story.html


COHA, or Council on Hemispheric Affairs, was founded in 1975, the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), a nonprofit, tax-exempt independent research and information organization, was established to promote the common interests of the hemisphere, raise the visibility of regional affairs and increase the importance of the inter-American relationship, as well as encourage the formulation of rational and constructive U.S. policies towards Latin America.

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