Haiti democracy withers as last senators leave office

Haiti's last elected senators have officially left office, raising fears for the future of democracy in an impoverished, crime-ravaged state that has not managed to hold a vote since 2016.

With not a single elected official left on the national stage as of Tuesday, and gangs running amok across the country, Haiti's very future looked uncertain 18 months after its last president was assassinated.

It's been a gradual process: the legislative branch effectively ceased to function back in January 2020, when all lower house deputies and two thirds of the National Assembly's upper chamber left their posts without successors to replace them.

"You can barely call it a democracy any more," said lawyer Samuel Madistin, "and this comes at a time when the state is losing control of the majority of its territory, 60 percent of it, to armed gangs."

For Madistin, Haiti "is a state which, in practical terms, no longer exists."

The assassination of president Jovenel Moise by an armed commando squad in his private residence in July 2021 only amplified the deep political crisis in which the country was already mired because of the paralysis of public institutions.

Currently it is Prime Minister Ariel Henry who helms the country, but having been appointed rather than elected, just 48 hours before the president's murder, his legitimacy is widely questioned.

- 'Machiavellian calculation' -

Madistin believes the PHTK, the party once led by Moise, deliberately stalled on organizing elections in the country, out of self-interest.

But he adds: "The failure is also that of the international community and the United Nations, whose mission was to stabilize the country politically."

After 13 years of the UN Minustah mission, which deployed up to 9,000 blue helmets and more than 4,000 international police officers from 2004 to 2017, the UN has scaled down its presence in Haiti.

Reduced today to a political office of about 60 staff, the world body has nevertheless kept its mandate to "strengthen political stability and good governance."

That nobody is able today to effectively govern Haiti to pass laws does not particularly move the country's inhabitants, who are more immediately concerned by the twin threats of gang violence and extreme poverty.

"Citizens are not really interested in the problem of representation: their priority is security," notes Gedeon Jean, director of the Center for Analysis and Research in Human Rights (CARDH).

During 2022 the civil society organization recorded at least 857 kidnappings committed by armed gangs.

More surprisingly, perhaps, the country's spiral into lawlessness does not always top the agenda for politicians either.

One of the senators whose term ended Monday, Patrice Dumont, used his leaving press conference to expand in detail on his accomplishments in parliament -- and to denounce the waste of public money by his fellow lawmakers.

- Corruption in parliament -

That lack of interest in politics has grown over the years as the list of scandals involving ministers, deputies or senators has grown ever longer -- without Haiti's justice system taking any action.

Scarcely more than 20 percent of voters bothered to cast a ballot in the last polls the country managed to hold in late 2016.

"Parliament has become a high place for corruption: people cast votes in exchange for money, for management positions," said the director of CARDH.

"We had corrupt people in parliament, drug traffickers, people who were used for money laundering," Jean added.

The latest legislature had fallen into disrepute even before its members began serving their term.

In January 2017, four days before he was due to be sworn in as senator, which would have granted him immunity, Guy Philippe, a former senior police officer and Moise ally, was arrested in Port-au-Prince.

Extradited the same day to Florida, he pleaded guilty and was later sentenced to nine years in prison for laundering money from drug trafficking.

And in November 2022, several businessmen and politicians, including the outgoing Senate president Joseph Lambert, were sanctioned by the United States and Canada which accused them of ties to drug trafficking and organized crime.

"We need to think about injecting some morality into political life and cleaning up the electoral system," warned Jean, "to prevent people from holding the next elections hostage with dirty money."

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