Hurricane Matthew has forced the suspension of Haiti’s elections, which were scheduled to be held this past Sunday, October 9. The south-western end of the country was hardest hit by the Category-4 storm, and over a week later many towns and villages are still awaiting humanitarian aid. The international community has supported the decision to put off the vote, and all political actors are now focused on relief efforts. When the elections will resume is not clear, but given the extensive damaged caused by Matthew the delay could be long.
Hurricane Matthew struck Haiti’s southern tip on October 4 and left widespread devastation in its wake. Its 145-mile per hour winds flattened houses, felled trees, ruined crops and killed livestock. The powerful winds pushed ocean waters inland and the storm poured down 15-25 inches of rain, causing extensive flooding in the Sud, Grand’Anse, Nippes departments. Cell phone towers and other communication infrastructure in these departments were knocked out and several bridges connecting the south with the capital of Port-au-Prince were washed out.
Initially, the number of deaths attributed to Hurricane Matthew was in the dozens, in large part because contact with the affected areas was almost impossible for days afterwards. Such low initial estimates were revised upwards as the scale of the catastrophe became clear. As of Monday, October 10, the official death toll stood at 372; Reuters, however, estimated the actual number of dead to be at least 1,000, based on reports collected from local officials. In Jérémie, the capital city of the Grand’Anse, an estimated 80 percent of homes were destroyed by Hurricane Matthew. Over 175,000 people have been displaced or rendered homeless by the storm and are living in shelters.
The CEP announced the postponement of elections on October 5, the day after the Category-4 storm made landfall. “We stand in solidarity with them and we will not leave them behind in the electoral process,” CEP President Léopold Berlanger told journalists. “The country is obligated to make the victims a priority.” The electoral council had been preparing to ship out sensitive election materials to voting centers throughout the country before the hurricane spoiled its plans. Elections will not happen for at least two weeks, according to the council, but many expect the delay to be over a month. The electoral council promised a new date for elections within a week, once the scale of the damage has been assessed. The CEP also announced that the electoral campaign would close as scheduled on October 7.
Initial reactions to the decision in Haiti were mixed. “Getting assistance to the population is more important than elections right now,” said LAPEH’s Jude Célestin, who called the delay a “wise decision.” Célestin added that he hoped a new date would be fixed soon enough to allow a new, elected president to take office by February 7 2017. Pitit Dessalines’ Moise Jean-Charles also called on the CEP to set a new date for the elections immediately. PHTK spokesperson Renald Luberice argued that the CEP should have been forced to reschedule before announcing the postponement, and said that interim President Jocelerme Privert “never wanted these elections. He wants to take the opportunity to postpone them indefinitely.” Fanmi Lavalas’ lawyer Gervais Charles, meanwhile, criticized the CEP’s decision to close the campaign while postponing the elections as “ill-considered and arbitrary.”
The international community supported the decision to delay elections. The U.S. State Department’s Kenneth Merten said that the decision was Haiti’s to make, but added that he hoped the vote would be held in the “not-too-distant future.” The OAS observation mission stated that it supported the move and would re-deploy observers when Haitian authorities decide they are ready to hold the elections.
Aid has been slow to arrive in many towns, and humanitarian groups are now raising alarms about a possible spike in cholera cases in the hurricane-struck region due to a severe lack of potable water. Another major concern is food shortages caused by massive loss of crops and livestock in a region considered to be Haiti’s breadbasket. The U.S., Canada, France, Spain, Venezuela and Cuba have pledged to send aid and humanitarian personnel while the UN has appealed to members of the international community for $120 million in funding for relief efforts.
Interim President Jocelerme Privert stated that his government would take the lead in directing relief efforts, because it did not want to see a repeat of the chaotic, foreign-directed humanitarian response to the 2010 earthquake. Interior Minister Anick Joseph insisted that “it’s out of the question for NGOs to take charge of humanitarian aid.” “We are very firm on this point: this country is led by a government. Across the country, it’s civil protection services that are coordinating everything,” he added. “We are not going to turn this country into a messy chaos. It’s not going to happen. We already experienced that in 2010, we learned from our mistakes, we will act responsibly.”
Despite the CEP announcement, campaigning continued after the hurricane by other means as candidates launched relief efforts in the south. PHTK’s Jovenel Moïse used his helicopter to survey the damage and distribute water bags, food and medical supplies. Fanmi Lavalas closed its campaign in Port-au-Prince with a fundraising drive for hurricane relief and lead a “Caravan of Dignity” to the south to distribute supplies. Jude Célestin, an engineer and former director of the Centre National d'Équipements (CNE), wrote to the Privert government to request permission to re-build the Digue bridge in Petit-Goâve. His campaign team was also set to work clearing debris in Pernier, Miragoâne and Fond-Verrettes (Nippes). All three candidates used social media to promote their humanitarian endeavors.
Before Hurricane Matthew struck, some observers evaluated the CEP’s preparations positively while others criticized certain aspects of the planning. On September 26, PHTK accused the council’s newly-created “community observers” of being “disguised mandataires” intended to steal the elections. Days later, the CEP dropped the idea upon learning that several candidates or individuals registered as monitors (mandataires) for political parties had also signed up to be community observers. Changes made at the level of the departmental electoral bureaus (BEDs) also caused some controversy. Less than two weeks away from October 9, the presidents of four different BEDs resigned. Jonas Badette, president of the BED-Sud said he had resigned because he did not want to be “used for partisan purposes.” The CEP, however, claimed that the electoral officials were supposed to be removed following an evaluation of the electoral machinery and were pre-emptively resigning.
Despite its initial criticisms of the decision to rerun elections, the U.S. looked favorably on the coming elections. “As of right now, when it comes to preparations, we've had the impression that the CEP has put in a lot of effort to ensure transparency,” said Kenneth Merten. Canada, however, took a far more negative stance. Senior Canadian officials told the CBC on September 25 that Canada would not provide any extra funding for the October 9 elections and was considering withholding aid to the OAS observation mission as well. Haiti’s government was a “kleptocracy,” according to the Canadian officials, and the move was intended to send “the clear message that Canada is fed up with Haiti's leaders playing political games on the donor's dime.” “At the end we may make some small contribution,” a senior official with the Trudeau government told the CBC. “But mainly because we don't want to spite ourselves,” he added, pointing out that if Haiti descends further into chaos the fallout could end up costing Canada even more.
The final weeks of the electoral campaign had been marked by a growing number of violent incidents. In Saint-Marc, PHTK deputy-turned-AAA senate candidate Gracia Delva and a group of his supporters were attacked by gunmen shortly after a meeting with KID senator Carl Cantave. In St. Michel-de l’Attalaye, Delva supporters clashed with those of a rival candidate (Pitit Dessalines’ Patrick Joseph). Delva’s successful 2015 campaign to represent the constituency of Marchand-Dessalines (Artibonite) was riddled with violence. Tensions flared between PHTK and Pitit Dessalines supporters in Milot (Nord) as well. In Miragoâne, Moise Jean-Charles was forced to cancel a campaign rally after shots were fired at his supporters. In addition, a campaign vehicle belonging to Jean-Charles’ Pitit Dessalines was vandalized during a stop in Cerca-de la Source. On September 28, PHTK denounced an alleged arson attack on Jovenel Moise's Agritrans banana plantation in Trou du Nord.
In response to the incidents of election-related violence, Privert called on political actors to demonstrate tolerance and to ask their sympathizers to allow rival political meetings to “unfold in peace and reciprocal respect.” Privert also urged the police to deal sternly with those disturbing political rallies. The Director-General of the Haitian National Police (HNP) reminded candidates that all political rallies must be held at least 1 km apart, and that police must be notified in advance.
Jovenel Moise expanded his alliances in anticipation of the October 9 vote. On September 28, 48 of 93 sitting deputies from different parties (including PHTK, AAA and OPL) announced their support for Jovenel Moise, offering 2 million gourdes to finance his campaign. The declaration indicates that whoever is elected, PHTK will be a major force in the parliament. When asked by journalists about the source of the funds, the deputies’ spokesman Fritz Chéry (AAA deputy, Gros-Morne) was evasive. Three candidates from smaller parties (Roland Magloire of the Parti Démocrate Institutionnaliste, Amos André of the Front Uni pour la Renaissance d'Haiti and Marc Arthure Drouard of the Parti Unité Nationale) also announced that they were withdrawing from the presidential race to back Jovenel Moise. Le National noted that at least 20 out of 27 presidential candidates were virtually absent from the campaign.