PARIS — Battered by gang violence and corruption, its Parliament near vacant, its judiciary in tatters, its Constitution subject to dispute, its poverty crushing and its history a chronicle of unrest, Haiti was in bad shape even before its president was assassinated and rival factions laid claim to power.
Now, it’s in meltdown.
“Haitian democracy has been slipping away for a long time and with each round it’s been getting worse,” said Peter Mulrean, a former United States ambassador to Haiti. “There is not much left to save.”
Claude Joseph, the interim prime minister, and eight of the 10 remaining members of Parliament in the entire country of 11 million people have both said they have a legitimate right to assume power and fill Haiti’s vacuum of authority.
Mr. Joseph, as the incumbent, has tepid backing from a Biden administration desperate not to be sucked into a quagmire. The vestigial Senate, having been elected, has some legal imprimatur, but is dogged by accusations of corruption and self-dealing.
When power is disputed, institutional strength and the rule of law become paramount. Haiti has little or none. It finds itself in a desperate void. As the battle for power escalates, there is scarcely a Haitian democratic institution standing that can adjudicate the dispute stemming from the assassination of the president, Jovenel Moïse, in his home on Wednesday.
After the last United States election result was contested, a mob incited by former President Trump stormed the capitol on Jan. 6, but American legal checks and balances held in the end. Further violence was averted, but only just.
Absent strong institutions, some powerful international investment in stability is critical. Afghanistan is scarcely more stable than Haiti. Neither state can make a claim to have a monopoly on the use of organized violence within its own borders, a classic definition of a government’s authority.
Yet Afghanistan overcame a similar crisis last year. After the 2020 election, both the incumbent, Ashraf Ghani, and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, claimed victory. Mr. Abdullah initially denounced the election result as a “coup.” A violent clash seemed possible. But the United States, through intense diplomacy, was able to mediate a compromise.
“The United States had troops in the country,” said Barnett Rubin, a former State Department official with deep knowledge of Afghanistan. “It had advisers. It was invested. It was tacitly on Mr. Ghani’s side.”
The United States had an overriding national interest in resolving the conflict and opening the way for peace talks with the Taliban — even if those efforts seem fleeting now that the United States is withdrawing its troops and the Taliban advances across the country.
In Haiti, there is no clear rule of law nor any indication that the United States is eager to intervene militarily and force a resolution. If it has any national interest, it lies in preventing upheaval so close to its shores and avoiding another mass Haitian migrant exodus like the one that followed the 1991 coup that ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The potential for the crisis in Haiti to worsen is evident. Mr. Joseph immediately declared “a state of siege,” a form of martial law, but his right to do so was unclear. And in many ways rampant gang violence had already reduced Haiti to a condition resembling a country under siege.
The Senate, or what’s left of it, wants Joseph Lambert, its president, to become provisional president and Mr. Joseph replaced as provisional prime minister by Ariel Henry. Before his death, Mr. Moïse had named Mr. Henry, a neurosurgeon, to the prime minister’s position, but he had not yet been sworn in.
The path to breaking a standoff is murky. Under Mr. Moïse, Parliament was eviscerated. The terms of two thirds of the nation’s senators had expired, as did those of every member of the lower house, with no elections to replace them.
Critics accused Mr. Moïse of presiding over the collapse deliberately, to further consolidate power. When he was assassinated, the nation was suddenly rudderless.
Countries can function, to varying degrees, with nobody in power, or power disputed. In the postwar years, Italy and Belgium have managed with no government for long periods, but they had solid democratic institutions.
Lebanon, in dire financial straits, has limped along for many years with two military forces — the national army and the Hezbollah militia — and a dysfunctional government that looks to a millennial generation like a license for the political elite to loot with impunity while the country suffers. Still, it has avoided spiraling back into civil war.
In the Ivory Coast, though, violence ultimately settled dueling claims to power after two people declared victory in the 2010 presidential election. The incumbent, Laurent Gbagbo, refused to step down despite the fact that international electoral observers had recognized his rival, Alassane Ouattara, as the winner. Several thousand people were killed in a brief civil war before the French army helped pro-Ouattara forces oust Mr. Gbagbo.
In Venezuela, also deep in economic misery, Nicolás Maduro, the nation’s authoritarian leader, has clung to power through more than two years of turmoil despite the rival claims of Juan Guaidó, an opposition leader who has been backed by dozens of foreign governments, including the United States, as the rightful president.
American sanctions have cut off much of the Maduro government’s revenue. The result has been mass migration of precisely the kind the Biden administration wants to avoid in the case of Haiti.
Democracies take root slowly and painfully, and Haiti, since becoming the first independent state of Latin American and the Caribbean in 1804, has suffered turmoil almost without respite. Crippled by debt imposed by France, occupied by the United States for almost two decades in the early 20th century, undermined by corruption and coups, hit in 2010 by an earthquake and over the past year by the coronavirus pandemic, the country is at its most vulnerable and combustible.
But the Biden administration, at the very moment when the president has been pulling the country back from its forever wars, is wary of any deep Haitian involvement, especially of a request from Haitian officials to deploy American troops. Haitian leaders tend to look to Washington for backing and approval to reinforce their political credentials.
For the United States, the European Union and the United Nations, the path of least resistance may well be to seek to resolve the power conflict by urging Haiti to move forward with elections planned for September. The Biden administration has already done just that, as if voting was some panacea.
But in an article in Just Society, Mr. Mulrean, who was the American ambassador to Haiti between 2015 and 2017, wrote that holding the elections would be “a mistake.”
“It is tempting to think that new elections will clarify the situation and restore stability, but experience teaches us the opposite,” he wrote. “What Haiti needs is to take stock of what is broken and fix it.”
A broad coalition of opposition parties and civil society is calling for just that. Voting, they note, solves nothing if the institutions that secure democracy have ceased to function.