WASHINGTON - Haiti is under enormous pressure from the United States, United Nations, Organization of American States and members of the international community to organize elections as soon as possible. President Jovenel Moise has ruled by decree since January 2020 when the terms of two-thirds of the parliament expired.
Elections planned for 2020 were canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic and a series of mass protests that paralyzed the country. Complicating matters, a spike in kidnappings and violent crimes targeting Haitians from all sectors of society has raised security concerns.
In January 2021, President Moise named millionaire entrepreneur Mathias Pierre as minister-designate in charge of overseeing elections. Pierre has a unique insight into the electoral process as a former candidate who opposed Moise in the 2016 election. He spoke to VOA via Skype about the upcoming elections.
VOA: Good Morning Minister Pierre. What do you see as the biggest obstacle to holding these elections?
MINISTER PIERRE: I think the election challenge today is to get the political leaders to understand that democracy is the power of the people to elect their leaders. We understand that a lot of the political leaders from the opposition are afraid of elections and what we as a government are doing is, we are trying to show everyone that we are working toward free and fair elections.
We'll work with BINUH ([the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti), which is the U.N. on the ground, through UNDP (United Nations Development Program) and UNOPS (United Nations Office for Project Services) through a contract to provide logistical support and assistance ... to make sure that the electoral process will go technically well and that we'll be supporting the electoral council.
VOA: Are people willing to sign up for voter cards? We've heard that people are afraid due to lack of security, kidnappings, crime.
MINISTER PIERRE: Historically, every time elections are going to happen you have a tendency of [people saying] "if I don't control power, then I'm afraid of the election." So then, when there is a transition of power, it's easier for me to [participate in] elections. Why? Because I need to be in power in order to find more resources to participate in elections.
That's something we need to overcome as political leaders. We understand there is a major security issue. At the same time, the president has been doing everything he can to address [that]. A cell has been put in place with the head of the police — we call it an anti-kidnapping cell — the purpose is to work toward addressing the kidnapping issue and putting every resource that the country can do addressing that issue. Very soon there will be measures taken to make sure that we control insecurity and also neutralize the gangs that are creating unrest around the country. But again, democracy is about elections.
VOA: Is there a way to be more inclusive at this late date and encourage the opposition to participate so that these elections will be more credible in their eyes? This is something the U.S., the UN, OAS have all asked for.
MINISTER PIERRE: Well, I think by choosing myself ... a fierce former opponent of the president, he sent the right signal that he wants an inclusive election. I'm engaged in that process because I believe there should be a fair, transparent and inclusive election.
But the president is ... doing everything he can to invite his opponents and the political leaders into a dialogue, a dialogue that will get us together and do whatever is necessary... in terms of looking at the electoral council and in terms of the new constitution. That is ongoing.
VOA: The opposition doesn't seem willing to change their position on not participating in the process and they seem to not want dialogue. As a former presidential candidate, is there a unique role you can play?
MINISTER PIERRE: I think there are two parts to my job. One is to facilitate and talk to all the partners that are in the electoral process to make sure that the process is streamlined. The second aspect of my job is a relationship with the political parties.
Since my arrival I've been actively ... talking to political parties, to political leaders to see what can be done. At my first event, more than 100 political parties were invited to sit and discuss the constitution. We are preparing other events. I am pretty confident that major political leaders will join the election when they see signs that we are doing everything we can to alleviate issues that we have, but at the same time create conditions for fair, transparent elections that are also inclusive.
VOA: A lot of people question whether the Haitian National Police force is capable of getting security under control after what happened in Village de Dieu on March 12 when at least eight police were killed in an anti-gang operation. We hear Haiti is going to get some help from the international community on security. What can you tell us about that?
MINISTER PIERRE: We have confidence in the national police, and we will keep having confidence in the national police. We also understand we have weak structures. We also understand their lack of resources and that is why I think during the meeting with the president and [Luis Almagro, head of the Organization of American States] yesterday, international support was requested to assist the police.
We have the manpower; we have the expertise we have a lot of officers that are experienced. They have been trained for the past 25 years. They know what to do. Certainly, we understand gangs are well equipped in some parts [of the country]. The police failed [on March 12]. Why? Because they were avoiding [civilian casualties] — don't forget these gangs are using poor people as shields. I think in the days to come there [will be] strong measures announced. There are strong decisions being taken to address that issue and provide the adequate response to what happened in Village de Dieu on Friday.
VOA: Let's talk about logistics. You said there's a lot to do. Will the constitutional referendum happen in June?
MINISTER PIERRE: For sure. Everything is underway. UNOPS which will assist the electoral council on logistics — the technicians from UNOPS are already in Haiti and certainly this is the first time we are going have an election without the logistical support of [the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti] but what we've done, there is [an electoral security] cell that has been created inside the BINUH that is specifically in charge of the logistics and security for the election.
The army also is mobilizing their soldiers and all of the equipment from Port-au-Prince to the different departments.
We have 1,700 [electoral council] poll centers that will be [working with] 11,000 poll offices, so I think everything will be done... we have the expertise on the ground.
VOA: Does Haiti have enough money to organize these elections?
MINISTER PIERRE: For now, the budget is $125 million — which is under revision. The agreement signed with UNDP is $72 million. I know the U.S. government has been pushing the U.N. to reduce that.
Haiti already disbursed $20 million to the [U.N.] basket fund. That's why materials have been ordered. And another $3 million was disbursed to the CEP (Provisional Electoral Council) to start renting space, pay people, etc... I think as a sovereign country, we have a responsibility to organize elections — with or without international support. Certainly, we encourage our international partners to contribute to the basket fund.
VOA: Haiti has been under a lot of pressure to organize these elections. Give us some insight on how that pressure feels for you.
MINISTER PIERRE: I believe that we and the international community have the same goal. The president has been clear — elections this year is the number one priority.
The president understands the challenge. Everything he has done for the past year, any legacy that he has — organizing elections and handing power over to a new elected president is key to his success.
We understand the concerns of the international community, our partners — particularly the United States. We are communicating to our partners regularly ... [we are addressing] issues along the way and respond adequately so that we provide the Haitian people with one of the things most important for them — leaders that are elected.
VOA: What steps are you taking to counter potential fraud?
MINISTER PIERRE: When I was an opponent to President Jovenel Moise one of my major concerns was electoral fraud. I [looked] everywhere in the system to understand whatever could create fraud and one of them was the national identification card. [With] the new system, you have your picture, fingerprint, all the biometric information is included in your card. There is one unique number for every Haitian that has their card. [If you] lose your card [you can] get a replacement card but you will always have one unique identification number. And that unique number — will be transferred into the electoral registry.
As of today, we have over 4.2 million people registered in the system and [they] will be able to vote. And I encourage them to go out there to vote. No one will be able to vote twice or three times as happened in the past. We will make sure this cannot happen in the system this time.
VOA: How many people are you aiming to have registered by the time the referendum rolls around?
MINISTER PIERRE: We have one constraint with the CEP and the UN who have requested that the registry be closed 60 days before the vote. If that happens, we're trying to see how we can reduce two months into either one month or 1 1/2 months. I just had a meeting with a technician to see how we can address that in order to give more people the possibility to register.
According to the UN people working with the CEP, those registries that would provide the list of people able to vote have to be printed outside of Haiti. At the same time, the secretary general of the UN is telling us don't leave 2.5 million people out.
VOA: What is your message to Haitians and to the opposition about this election? Why should they trust you to organize it?
MINISTER PIERRE: If we're looking to have stability ... to have peace in the country, if we have to come together and fight poverty, there is no way in a democracy for leaders to get to the top [unless it’s] by the people. The power of the people to cast a ballot and decide who their next leader [will be].
I know there might be a lack of confidence in the government, but the president [is committed] to holding fair elections.