(CNN) Everyone seems to agree that Haiti needs change. The question of how to get there is tearing the country apart.
After a tumultuous four years in office marked by mass protests, political gridlock, gas shortages, economic pain, and a grim surge in kidnappings, Haitian President Jovenel Moise is staking his legacy on a series of nationwide votes planned for this year: a summer referendum to overhaul the Caribbean nation’s constitution, and general elections in the fall.
According to Moise’s government, the elections will guarantee a peaceful transfer of power to his successor, and the new constitution will empower that successor to solve problems that Moise could not. These plans are backed by powerful voices in the international community, including the United Nations
But opposition leaders — who like many legal experts believe Moise has already overstayed his welcome — say the whole process is a farce. They point out that the President could have organized elections earlier to fill the country’s vacant parliament, but instead chose to rule by decree for more than a year, fueling skepticism that the elections will be free and fair. Plus, the current constitution expressly forbids making changes by referendum.
Nevertheless, in an interview last week with CNN, Haiti’s elections minister, Mathias Pierre, said the government would forge ahead. “As President Moise has said, elected leaders have to hand power to another elected leader, and we’re going to do everything that we can to organize the election, and give that power to the people with the ballot,” he said.
‘He had to wait until parliament because dysfunctional’
Pierre said the President’s often unilateral decision-making — which critics say violates the country’s democracy — is necessary for the greater good of holding elections.
“There’s no way to organize an election without a law to hold election, and an electoral council. Those two had been blocked by the previous parliament, so he had to wait until the parliament became dysfunctional to get into the process through an executive order, because you can’t have executive orders while there’s a parliament,” Pierre said.
Failing to hold elections would result in “chaos” with no clear leader next year, he warned.
The minister also defended the constitutional referendum planned for June 27. The current constitution creates confusion and political logjams, he emphasized, and argued that a new constitution is a necessary precondition for holding general elections in September, describing the current electoral system as overcomplicated and too expensive for Haiti.
“The (current) constitution allows multiple elections, like congressmen being elected for four years and senators, some elected for two years … and then we have the president elected for five years. All these elections, no resources to organize them,” he said.
The new proposed Constitution would reduce the number of elected officials in Haiti from 6,844 to just 931 and streamline term limits for all positions to 5 years, he said.
The Haitian public has been invited to review and debate the proposed constitutional changes, which among other things would offer greater political representation to the Haitian diaspora and restructure the legislative branch.
Reserving parliamentary seats for women
More changes may be in the works that could also dramatically affect the outcome of the parliamentary elections, Pierre said.
He is working on a draft provision for the new constitution that would force the government to set aside 35% of parliamentary seats for women, he said. Though yet to be submitted for inclusion in the new constitution, this could theoretically produce major change in a country with one of the lowest rates of women’s political representation in the world.
“The ideal would be to follow the steps of Rwanda. You know Rwanda is one of the countries that has created so-called “reserve seats” for women and Rwanda today is the only country with more women in the parliament than men,” Pierre said.
Haiti’s current constitution already calls for women to be represented on all levels of government by a minimum of 30% — but with no laws instructing the country on how to implement this measure, it has never been enforced.
Reserving seats only for female candidates could change that, though there remain steep disadvantages for women in Haitian politics, including security concerns and sexist treatment by media and opponents.
“In a country with a patriarchal culture, it can be very difficult for women to get elected unless they have reserve seats,” Pierre said. “For the new reserve seats, all political parties will have to register only women candidates to participate in the vote.”
Gabrielle Bardall, an elections expert who consulted with several international organizations last year on how to implement Haiti’s gender quota, told CNN it is an opportunity to correct a longstanding violation of the current constitution — despite criticisms of the referendum’s legitimacy.
“This is as good of a time as any to show that it is possible,” she said, adding that the currently vacant Parliament could even present a unique opportunity.
“If you have 100% men in parliament, and you’re not going to change the parliament size or anything like that, then you have a bunch of male incumbents that don’t want to give up the seats. But there’s no parliament now. So you don’t have the same tradeoff with incumbents.”
‘No legitimate candidate will participate’
It’s unclear who will ultimately participate in the two votes. Pierre said he would be content with around 1 million votes cast — a low number for a country with an estimated population of 11 million, but consistent with past voter participation.
Meanwhile, security concerns for both candidates and voters haunt any attempt to predict turnout this year, and opposition leaders have already vowed to boycott the whole process.
“No legitimate candidate will participate,” said anti-corruption activist Emmanuela Douyon, who leads the think tank Policité Haiti.
Instead, she and other government critics are working to propose a new transitional government to shepherd the election process — a solution that she pointed out has been supported by the international community in other countries where the executive has lost confidence, like Venezuela.
As for the constitutional referendum, Douyon said this is no time to meddle with it.
“It would be better to have an election and let the new elected government have discussion to see whether or not we want to change the constitution. The priority now is to have a parliament, to have democratic order,” she said.
It’s an opinion shared by the President of the National Association of Haitian Judges, Jean Wilner Morin.
Morin tells CNN that as a judge, he says, he cannot criticize the government’s decision to hold a referendum, in order to maintain impartiality for any future potential case that comes before him.
But as a lawyer, he doesn’t believe a new constitution will solve much, considering that “the constitution that is currently in force in Haiti has never been applied or respected,” he said. “The emergency in Haiti is not a new constitution but the establishment of rule of law and good governance, while prioritizing strict respect for the constitution.”
Pragmatism versus principles
Asked to address credibility concerns around the referendum and election, Pierre pointed beyond Haiti’s borders. He is working with the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Office for Project Services, and has invited the Organization of American States to send election monitoring teams.
“The idea is for these institutions who have experience in organizing elections in Haiti…to provide technical support and assistance and logistical support to the electoral council,” Pierre said. The government also hopes to galvanize public support by working to get buy-in from the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in the country, he added.
“Now we need our people from the opposition, the political leaders to understand we need to have an election. Elections should be a must. Certainly I understand their concerns. Where should we address those concerns? On the table of negotiation,” he said.
But Douyon says the government’s international partners can’t confer confidence in the process — and have themselves lost credibility by standing with President Moise.
Anyone who asks the country to participate in elections organized without full democratic and legal protocol is “telling the Haitian people we don’t deserve better,” she added.
“This is the kind of signal we don’t want to send to the kids who are going to study Haitian history.”