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Haiti’s Elections: Low Turnout reflects Lack of Hope for Change

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By: Elena Tiralongo with collaboration from Gvaram Khandamishvili, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

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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] Two main obstacles, however, may have prevented legitimate electoral outcome. First, Haitians were often paid to participate in rallies or to vote, so 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, Conseil National d’Obesrvation des Elections, Conseil Haitien des Acteurs Non Etatiques), the elections and the pre-election period were 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 their country’s economic, political stability, and development, these efforts have not always translated into positive results. The resulting lack of trust in Haitian leaders and the international community has discouraged Haitians from civic engagement around elections. To better grasp what drives Haitians away from a robust political life, it is important to understand Haiti’s current status and its struggles towards authentic development.


Haiti’s Current Economic and Social Situation

Haitians are discouraged from participating in political life partially due to low socio-economic development. Many Haitians struggle to emerge from poverty and social inequality because they have little opportunities to change their situation. The devastating 2010 earthquake stalled Haiti’s development once again.

Even though between 2010 and 2014 Haiti experienced a 26% percent increase in per-capita Gross Domestic Product (from $669.19 USD to $846 USD), 59 percent of Haitians survive on less than $2.42 USD per day, which is below the poverty line, and 24 percent 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, and became a treasure for colonizers who brought slavery and oppression.[7] After obtaining independence from France in 1804, its history is one of coups d’état, dictatorships, and internal fights, not to mention a series of natural disasters.

Outside interventions have continued into the 21st century. At times they have aimed to contribute to Haiti’s development; at times they have made matters worse. Ineffective international assistance, lack of political leadership, and repeated failures to hold parliamentary elections have created a vicious cycle: the international community cannot operate without effective infrastructures, which in turn cannot be built without international intervention. This vicious cycle has contributed to Haitians’ mistrust in the system and helps perpetuate low political participation.

The European Union: In recent years, the EU has established development collaborations with Haiti. They include 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 military overthrow of Haiti’s first president elected in free elections, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Several UN peacekeeping operations were aimed at promoting 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

In at least 100 years of U.S.-Haitian relations Haitians do not seem to have developed a meaningful trust in 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. Many Haitians interviewed by The New York Times during a 2006 rally said they believed Aristide had been kidnapped. His supporters wanted him back as the only hope for a better future in a country that has suffered hunger for 200 years. President Aristide’s removal spurred anti-American feelings among Haitians due to alleged U.S. involvement.[19]

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 Hillary 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 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), 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, part of the United States’ support for Haiti’s reconstruction after the earthquake, is also the center of Haiti’s government economic development. The Industrial Park primarily targets the creation of light manufacturing industries and has become a new source of investment in rural Haiti outside of Port-au-Prince. According to the U.S. State Department and the Clinton Foundation, the Park will create 65,000 jobs by 2020. So far, the Korean manufacturer Sae-A Trading Ltd, anchor tenant of the Caracol Industrial Park, has committed $78 million USD and seeks to hire 20,000 workers. However, Sae-A Trading Ltd is awaiting the completion of additional factories, as the manufacturer’s current factories are at full capacity with only 7,000 employees.[25] So far it is clear that the overall prediction of hiring 65,000 Haitians by 2020 is unrealistic.

U.S. foreign policy towards Haitian immigrants has been inconsistent. In the past, the United States would welcome Haitian refugees on grounds of economic difficulties and political oppression. In the most recent years, however, Haitians refugees have encountered major difficulty being accepted in the United States. This change in attitude towards Haitians shows an enormous discrepancy compared with easier U.S. treatment of immigrants from Cuba. Despite creating an expanded definition of the refugee law in 1980, the US also created Executive Order 12807, disqualifying from refugee protection asylum seekers stopped at sea. This Order bypasses the intention of the laws created to protect refugees. Moreover, the U.S. 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” to select asylum seekers for an interview. The test is performed while Haitians are still on their boats. The asylum seekers are selected based on their capacity of screaming the loudest, which is supposed to indicate their need for help. Also, the Coast Guard is not required by law to have an interpreter on board; therefore, many Haitians do not 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. Some traffickers or terrorists may pose as Haitians in order to entry in the United States, but is Haitian nationality more an indicator of being a smuggler or a terrorist than any other?[28]


Final Assessment

In its decision to extend the MINUSTAH mandate, the UN Security Council said Haiti is at a turning point in its democratization. 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]

Natural disasters aside, the Haitians have witnessed military dictatorships, presidents forced into exile, and invasions by foreign powers. 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 United States and rest of the international community should help Haiti develop politically through the fight against corruption by also denying support to political figures 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. A 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.

By: Elena Tiralongo with collaboration from Gvaram Khandamishvili, Research Associates at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

Please accept this article as a free contribution from COHA, but if re-posting, please afford authorial and institutional attribution. Exclusive rights can be negotiated. For additional news and analysis on Latin America, please go to: LatinNews.com and Rights Action.

Featured Photo: The counting of votes begins after the closing of Haitian polling stations during the February 2006 elections (Agência Brasil)


[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

Karen Seo, PR. Manager at Sae-A Trading, e-mail message to author, November 24, 2015.

[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