Hurricane Matthew forces Haiti to postpone crucial elections — for a fourth time

Haiti's presidential election process has been cancelled, postponed, and decried as fraudulent for nearly a year. Now, it faces a hurricane.
October 5, 2016, 6:40pm
Election posters in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Andres Martinez Casares/Reuters)

Haiti was already facing a momentous weekend by any standard, before the Caribbean's worst hurricane in a decade made landfall on the battered island nation. After a year of violent protests, allegations of voter fraud, and three postponed presidential elections, Haiti had hoped to restore confidence in its electoral process at the ballot box this Sunday.

Sadly, mother nature intervened. On Wednesday the impoverished Caribbean nation postponed a planned election for president — for the fourth time.

Reports from local media indicate that dozens of towns have been flooded, homes have been destroyed, and nearly 15,000 Haitians have been displaced in the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew. The Haitian government has reported five people dead, more than 10 injured, and another missing, according to local media.

On Wednesday morning, humanitarian aid agencies and government officials were scrambling to supply help to Haiti's southwest and coastal towns after a major bridge between Port-au-Prince and the south collapsed. And extreme flooding in the south has renewed concerns that another cholera outbreak will soon plague the country still coping with the deadly waterborne disease.

In the storm's aftermath, many Haitians are asking whether their fragile democracy can afford to delay presidential elections for a fourth time in one year.

Haiti's decision to postpone the election follows a trail of electoral misfires and controversies. In the last round of elections in October 2015 a handful of front-runners decried the initial results as fraudulent, and eventually forced a new round of elections. The interim Haitian president and the head of the country's legislative body tried repeatedly to set a new date for the elections, but subsequent efforts have been cancelled, rescheduled, or postponed. As a result, the impoverished country, still struggling to rebuild from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 200,000, has been without an elected president since Michel Martelly's term expired in February, after the country failed to elect his predecessor a month earlier.

The escalating political tension, which has turned violent in the weeks leading up to Sunday's long-awaited and now postponed vote, has put Haiti in the tenuous position of trying to steady its fragile democracy and cope with yet another natural disaster.

"What should scare us more, Hurricane Matthew or the elections?" wrote columnist Frantz Duval in the Le Nouvelliste newspaper last week before the storm ravaged the country. Duval argued that postponing the elections again, and failing to overhaul Haiti's "weak and inept" institutions, would only hamper recovery from the hurricane.

Related: Fraud, Violence, and Protests Cloud Results of Haitian Election

The electoral council's inability to follow through with its presidential elections has been a source of frustration for officials in Haiti and abroad. In July, the U.S. State Department pulled millions in funding from the island country's electoral process.

But as of last week, Kenneth Merten, the State Department's special coordinator for Haiti, said he's been impressed with preparations for the elections, according to Le Nouvelliste.

"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 Merten.

It was promising praise for the oft-scrutinized council that has faced a battery of challenges and interruptions in the last year. The council will have to weather one more.