ITS PARLIAMENT disbanded and its judiciary weak and subject to manipulation, Haiti is slouching toward tyranny. President Michel Martelly, whose term expires in 10 months, has set a timetable for much-delayed legislative and local elections later this year. But given that Mr. Martelly now rules by decree in a country with a history of dictatorship, there is ample cause for skepticism and worry.
Elected in 2011, Mr. Martelly has spent much of his time in office feuding with lawmakers over holding new elections, effectively paralyzing the country’s politics until the terms of most members of parliament expired in January. Having barely bothered to conceal his contempt for the legislative branch, the president seems content with its absence — and with the collapse of any semblance of checks and balances.
The intransigence of Mr. Martelly’s political opponents contributed to the past few years’ paralysis, but at this point the burden of holding elections falls on him. Diplomats have pronounced themselves encouraged that he has ordered that a first round of legislative elections be held in August, with a second round (plus presidential and local balloting) in October. It is imperative that there be no slippage in that timetable if Haiti is to have any chance of restoring democratic governance.
Mr. Martelly, formerly a pop star, has made much of the fact that on his watch Haiti’s economy has made some strides, and tens of thousands of people displaced by the 2010 earthquake have been resettled from tents to permanent dwellings. Massive piles of rubble have been removed from the quake zone; school enrollment has climbed; the number of people suffering from cholera has dropped sharply; and with help from international donors, new businesses, hotels and jobs are in evidence, especially in the capital, Port-au-Prince.
Still, Haiti remains among the world’s most desperately poor nations, with a quarter of its 10 million people scrounging a living on less than $1 a day. If Haiti’s tortured history teaches anything, it’s that the country’s recent progress is fragile and heavily dependent on political stability. The current absence of massive street demonstrations should not be mistaken for political stability. The U.N. peacekeeping force that has helped tamp down violence is scheduled to shrink by about half in coming months even as quake-related international aid dries up. If elections are postponed or canceled, this season’s relative calm is likely to be remembered as the silence before the storm.
As the New York Times recently reported, Mr. Martelly’s government and some of his closest associates are suspected of all manner of intimidation, violence and corruption, including involvement in illegal narcotics. In the absence of watchdogs in a functioning parliament, malfeasance is likely to increase.
Free and fair elections are a minimum precondition for setting the country on a more durable path to prosperity. Washington and other major donors should insist that Mr. Martelly stick to the electoral timetable and that the transition to a new president next year is realized.
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