The gold-trimmed letters marking Haiti's Legislative Palace still shine brightly on the front wall of the seaside building in Port-au-Prince. But the massive earthquake that hit the nation on Jan. 12, killing more than 200,000 people, left a hole on one side of the structure, exposing a black wrought-iron staircase. The quake ripped open the building's opposite side, where detritus like metal, concrete, chairs, desks and paper scraps spewed forth like volcanic lava.
Haiti's parliamentarians now operate out of a trailer on the grounds of the old police academy and their ranks are as much in disarray as the palace they used to use. Of the 30 Senators (three from each of the country's 10 departments, or regions), two died in the temblor; one seat was already unfilled before the quake; and 10 members finished their terms last November. But the country wasn't prepared to hold a vote even then, and so their tenures were extended to May after which only about half the chamber will be occupied.
That's just the beginning of the mathematical chaos that's fallen on Haiti's political system like a shower of earthquake debris. Elections for President, Senators, deputies and myriad regional posts were all supposed to take place this year. But as the government crawls out from one of the worst natural disasters of modern times, the challenge of holding those contests looks daunting at best, especially since Haiti is the western hemisphere's poorest country. But Haitian President René Préval and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week urged that legislative elections, which were supposed to have taken place in February and March, and the presidential balloting, which has yet to be scheduled, be held. Otherwise, they warn, the nation, which has a long, violent history of political turmoil and dictatorships, risks undermining its fledgling democracy.
In a brief interview with TIME this week in Port-au-Prince, Préval, whose presidency will end next February, because he is not eligible to run for another five-year term, insisted that "elections are a necessity" an essential condition for Haiti's post-quake recovery as well as long-term development. "Elections may not happen tomorrow, but they will happen before I leave," he said. "We have 11 months. We have to start to plan as quickly as possible."
If only it were that easy. In the country's most populous department, which includes Port-au-Prince, almost half the voting booths were destroyed or lost in the quake which also killed the head of the U.N. team that oversees the logistical, technical and security facets of Haiti's elections. A new U.N. team arrived this week and still has to be trained. What's more, ruined voter-registration rolls, which are on backup computer files somewhere in Mexico, have to be retrieved. And that doesn't include cleaning up the list before the elections, distributing new voter cards and identifying where voters relocated after the disaster, which displaced some 1.3 million of Haiti's 9 million people.
Still, says Gaillot Dorsinvil, president of the Provisional Electoral Council, "it's not a question of if we are going to hold elections, but how. The debate is whether or not we hold one election for all the positions that need to be filled, or hold two elections one for the presidency and another for everything else."
But many Haitians are skeptical that a government that has seemed incapable of addressing basic needs like security, shelter and sanitation can put together even one national election, let alone two. The same complaints echo off the rubble piles from the capital's bidonvilles to its more affluent suburbs: lack of response, of leadership, of a plan. "If I look around, it's like we don't have a government," says Sineus Edner, 56, a Port-au-Prince security guard. "For me, I'd rather vote for [U.S. President Barack] Obama. We heard from him [after the quake] before we heard from our own President."
Some Haitians say they were jaded on elections in the best of times and certainly aren't in the mood to go through the exercise during a period of catastrophe. "Elections have done nothing for me," says Jean Bernard Thomas, 45, who has been voting since Haiti's first democratic election, in 1990. "There has to be development along with elections. My kids still can't go to school, and I can't keep them fed. Why bother to vote again?"
If elections aren't or can't be held this year, parliamentarians are considering other options to fill the governmental vacuum. One, says Senator Jeanty Jean Williams of the southern Nippes department, is that the current legislature create a "regional state council," with 30 members chosen from designated civic groups around the country. That body's job in turn would be to help put together a "national state council" to act as a sort of interim parliament until formal legislative elections can take place, perhaps next year. "That is the most popular alternative," says Williams, "because of its [regional] inclusiveness" in the process of not only choosing Haiti's leaders but directing quake recovery. "It involves a broad representation of Haitian society interfacing with the international and humanitarian aid organizations."
That still doesn't solve the issue of who will replace Préval, who insists that he won't serve beyond next February. And some Haiti watchers worry that the "interfacing" Williams mentions is just another way of saying international NGOs would keep running things in the country, as they were essentially doing even before the earthquake. That model has "gone nowhere," says Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert affiliated with Trinity Washington University and the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington. Despite the post-quake chaos, "it's time for [Haiti] to become a state that serves its people and moves [away] from the NGO. Elections are important because they are an investment in Haiti's long-term future."
Elections are indeed a critical condition for Haiti's future. The question is whether conditions on the ground in Haiti's nightmarish present can realistically accommodate them.