A Washington-based group calling itself the Haiti Priorities Project or HPP recently dispatched a team of 70 pollsters to take the pulse of the Haitian electorate. Based on their interview samples with 65,000 respondents the HPP concluded, “Only 5% of potential voters nationwide say they are ready to go to the polls in order to elect 12 senators for the upcoming elections in April of this year.”

A low voter turnout would only add to the already controversial electoral process that began with a ruling by Haiti’s Provisional Election Council or CEP to exclude the Fanmi Lavalas party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide on procedural grounds. Haitian president Rene Preval met with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in Washington on Feb. 5. The CEP’s decision to disqualify all of the Fanmi Lavalas party’s candidates was announced the following day and has led to speculation in Haiti the move was sanctioned by the Obama administration. Other major stakeholders in Haiti such as the UN, Brazil, Canada and France have openly worried that barring Lavalas from the upcoming ballot will be viewed as undemocratic and call into question the validity of the elections.

haiti_electionsLavalas, which means flash flood, is a political party and social movement in Haiti and has constituted the largest base of Haiti’s electorate since it galvanized around Aristide’s first successful candidacy for president in 1990. Preval’s election victory in 2006, and the success of his Lespwa party, is widely seen as a result of support from the same electoral base.

The decision to move forward with the Senate elections scheduled for April 19 has been overshadowed by visits from former president Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon in early March and an international donors conference on Haiti held in Washington D.C. yesterday.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton also visited Haiti on Thursday and did not comment on the elections directly but her stopover is widely seen as support by the Obama administration for the process.

Demonstrations planned against Hillary Clinton’s visit by Lavalas organizers were banned by the Haitian National Police due to the attention similar protests attracted during the Clinton/Ki-Moon visit on March 9. In violation of the police ban a large crowd was seen gathering in front of the parliament earlier this morning. Known as the Palais Legislatif, it has become a rallying site for Fanmi Lavalas to oppose the elections as five of their members continue a three-day long hunger strike in front of the building. They have vowed to continue the hunger strike throughout the weekend to draw attention to the exclusion of their party from the elections.

The controversy began when factions of the Fanmi Lavalas party originally presented two slates of candidates to the CEP for the upcoming Senate elections scheduled for April 19. After the CEP demanded they present a single slate, the Fanmi Lavalas party’s leadership managed to hammer out a compromise list of candidates in time to meet the deadline. The CEP refused to accept their applications on the grounds they did not have Aristide’s personal signature from exile in South Africa as the National Representative of the Fanmi Lavalas party.

According to witnesses the CEP refused to even allow for a facsimile copy of Aristide’s signature on the documents when they were presented on the final day of the application deadline. Representatives of Fanmi Lavalas have stated that no such demand was made by the CEP in 2006 whom they accuse of having sown confusion among Lavalas supporters by allowing former opponents of the movement to register under the party’s name.

Many in Haiti view the arbitrary decision-making process of the CEP as a politically motivated shell game. One analyst close to the CEP who spoke on condition of anonymity commented, “There was more division within Lavalas and greater procedural irregularities with their candidates in the elections of 2006. The only difference is they needed them to provide legitimacy to those elections. The political infighting only provided the CEP with a convenient excuse to exclude them.”

On March 9, former president Bill Clinton and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon received wide press coverage that distracted attention away from another event. The same day a Haitian judge, Jean-Claude Douyon, ruled, “The political rights of Lavalas have been violated,” and he ordered “the reintegration of candidates of that party, if they each individually meet the legal standards.” On April 3, Preval’s Minister of Justice Jean-Joseph Exumé fired Douyon accusing him of corruption in a seemingly unrelated case. Douyon has since made it clear in the Haitian press he believes the move is in retaliation for his ruling ordering the CEP to include Lavalas in the upcoming elections. He further claims Exumé threatened him not to take the case and made it clear the Preval government’s constitutional interpretation is the judiciary has no jurisdiction to overrule a CEP decision.

This interpretation makes Preval’s handpicked election council “the final arbiter” in any dispute related to the electoral process. Ironically, that was the same position taken by the Latortue regime in Feb. 2006 when it tried to use the CEP to rig elections against Preval. Their decision was final and there was no appeal until massive crowds of Lavalas supporters with burning tires blocked every major intersection of the capital finally forcing them and their patrons in the international community to back down.

A political analyst close to the CEP explained, “Anyone who remembers the ‘Belgian Option’ knows who was really pulling the strings,” referring to the face saving solution where Belgian electoral law was invoked to count thousands of blank ballots in 2006. Under Haitian law blank ballots are discarded but in Belgium they are divided evenly among all the candidates. After thousands of discarded and burned ballots were discovered in public dumping sites throughout the capital, the US, France and Canada agreed to use this irregular measure to return a majority of the electoral count to Preval. That unprecedented decision bore no relationship to Haiti’s constitution and has called into question the legitimacy of official rulings on electoral law by the CEP ever since.

Based on their polling for the April 19 elections the Haiti Priorities Project also stated, “The majority who participated in the survey intend to stay home due to the inconsistency exhibited by the administration of President Préval and the international community wanting to practice [electoral] exclusion, a system in which the people have been rejected since the fall of Duvalier 1986.”

Whether or not the polling information and conclusions of the Haiti Priorities Project are correct, the upcoming elections in Haiti are shaping up to be the first real foreign policy test of the Obama administration since it took office.