With the departure of Jean-Claude Duvalier in 1986, many hoped Haiti might turn a page in its 200-year history of independence. Since then, however, Haitians have suffered a spate of failed governments, dubious elections, and abortive international missions. There is renewed hope this summer, however, as Haitians prepare to go to the polls. Despite continuing unrest, political parties are forming into coalitions, voters are being registered, the politicians have even a signed a code of conduct. And the international community, often hampered in its efforts to deliver on its stated mandates in Haiti, is confident that a free and fair process can result.

One of the lead actors working with Haitians and the international community in this process will be Elections Canada. In June, the agency was named head of an observational secretariat that will coordinate the activities of independent observers during the elections, as well as in the months leading up to that occasion.

“Elections Canada agreed to take a quarterbacking role in putting together a global consortium of independent electoral authorities,” says Guillermo Rishchynski, vice president of the Americas Branch for the Canadian International Development Agency. “There was a consensus that if the Organization of American States (OAS) was doing voter registration and the United Nations was doing the overall organization of the election, a third, independent party had to be found to look at the overall electoral supervision. Clearly those that were registering and organizing the election could not be judge and jury of how the electoral process moved forward.”  Municipal elections will be held on October 9, followed by legislative elections and the first round of presidential elections on November 13. If necessary, a second round will take place on December 18. The new government is to take office on Feb. 7, 2006.

Elections Canada brought together electoral officials from Mexico, Chile, Panama, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and the U.S. to participate in the secretariat. Rishchynski calls the agency a natural choice, because of its experience in such places as the Balkans and Iraq.

“They’re very good at it,” he says. “It’s something they have done around the world and we’re confident that a very good plan will be put forward in terms of what the independent electoral observation will look like. Our hope is that there will be observers from all eight of the countries that are participating in the secretariat, some of the countries in the Caribbean, and the EU and the U.S.”  Previous Haitian elections have faced boycotts or worse from one or more factions, but to date all parties have agreed to participate, including party supporters of the Fanmi Lavalas party and former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“There will always be some holdouts but by and large there seems to be consensus on broadly based participation,” Rishchynski says. “Nobody has overtly said they will boycott but we anticipate that there may be some who simply don’t register their militants or elect not to participate as a function of internal issues. Right now what we see emerging are three broadly based coalitions representing centre, centre-left, socialist tendencies.”

That consensus was reinforced in June, when members of all 17 participating political parties signed an electoral code of conduct. “This kind of dialogue is vital to national reconciliation,” says Foreign Affairs Minister Pierre Pettigrew.

Elections Canada will monitor not only the elections themselves but the entire electoral process, from voter registration to the establishment of the voting places to the transition to a new government. Though the UN and OAS have set up about 230 registration sites, the registration process has proved difficult.

“More than 85 per cent of the Haitian population have no identity documents of any kind so they are literally starting from scratch generating an electoral list,” Rishchynski points out.

In early 2004, the international community — including donors, multilateral and financial institutions — began assessing what could be done to help Haiti move from an interim government to a democratically elected one. The resulting needs assessment, called the Interim Cooperation Framework (ICF), was led by the Haitian government with the assistance of national and international experts. The ICF identified priority interventions and financing requirements to support the country’s economic, social and political recovery over the next two years.

At the Washington Conference in July 2004, the international community pledged more than $1 billion US in support to the ICF. At the same time, the Security Council established the UN special mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) for a six-month period, which was later extended to 18 months. During that time, MINUSTAH is to oversee peacekeeping and development, as well as supervising elections.

Canada, which recently hosted the two-day International Conference on Haiti in Montreal, contributed $17 million to the electoral infrastructure. For its part, CIDA provided $3.5 million to cover the costs of organizing the observation secretariat. Canada also pledged $180 million over two years to ICF, part of which included a contribution of 100 civilian police to MINUSTAH. That makes Haiti the largest beneficiary of long-term Canadian development assistance in the Americas, not to mention the Canadian observers that will likely be provided to polling stations during the elections.

“We received notification recently that the interim government has welcomed the observation initiative,” Rishchynski says. “So our expectation is that this secretariat will now be able to begin the process of looking at the logistics and organizational elements of what observation will entail. In a country such as Haiti where the infrastructure is limited, this presents a lot of challenges.”

Haiti: A Recent History  Following a coup in 1991 by Lieutenant-General Raoul Cédras that ended the democratic rule of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the UN intervened in February 1993 with a joint OAS mission that by September had become the UN’s first peacekeeping operation in Haiti (UNMIH). However, it was never fully deployed and never completed its mandate due to the non-co-operation of Haitian military authorities.

In 1994, the Security Council sanctioned the deployment of a large U.S.-led multinational force to assist the return of the legitimate Haitian government. Although subsequent UN missions made some headway — including the handover between two democratically elected presidents — it was not until 2000 that Aristide and his Fanmi Lavalas party claimed victory in presidential and parliamentary elections, albeit with a voter turnout of barely 10 per cent. The opposition and much of the international community questioned the results.

An opposition movement comprised of political parties and civilian groups began calling for Aristide’s resignation in late 2003. Despite diplomatic efforts, especially by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) and the OAS, the two sides could not agree on a plan of action. By early 2004, Haiti’s 200th year of independence, armed conflict had spread from city to city, with insurgents eventually controlling much of the northern part of the country.

With the opposition threatening to march on the Haitian capital, Aristide left the country in 2004, paving the way for a UN multinational interim force and eventually the UN Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH). In addition to requesting UN assistance, the transitional government also drew up a political pact containing measures to instil security, development, and ultimately elections in 2005.