March 21, 2016
On Sunday, in what had increasingly become inevitable, Fritz Jean, the provisional president’s choice for prime minister, was rejected by Haiti’s chamber of deputies. Needing 60 votes to gain approval of his governmental program, only 38 voted in favor; 36 voted against, one abstained and more than a dozen stayed home. 60 votes would be an absolute majority in the Chamber, but more than 20 seats are empty, awaiting reruns of flawed elections.
Appointed by Haiti’s temporary leader, Jocelerme Privert over three weeks ago, Jean’s rejection has all but eliminated any chance that elections can be held next month. Privert, who came to office on February 14 with a mandate of 120 days, has yet to form a new government or a new electoral council.
Why was Jean’s platform rejected and where do things go from here? It’s as much about political control as it is about elections.
The opposition to Fritz Jean’s approval as prime minister was led by the pro-Martelly bloc in the chamber of deputies. Deputy Gary Bodeau explained to Reuters after the vote that “We rejected the program of Fritz Jean because his nomination by President Privert did not meet the consensus requirements which should characterize the prime minister.”
The political accord signed on February 5 called for a “consensus” prime minister, to be chosen after consultations with both chambers of parliament as well as civil society. After 10 days of meetings, Privert chose Fritz Jean, who was promptly sworn in while awaiting parliament’s approval of his government program.
Despite having broad support among the main private sector actors, the pro-Martelly bloc (including former PM Evans Paul) almost immediately signaled its rejection of Jean.
There are a few theories as to why.
Privert, who is a member of former-president Rene Preval’s political party and was a minister under Aristide in the early 2000s, chose a prime minister from a similar political current; Jean was head of the Central Bank under Aristide.
Though much of the criticism, such as branding this a Fanmi Lavalas “coup,” was clearly classic red-baiting, the pro-Martelly lawmakers had reason to worry.
After benefitting from the deep pockets of running a campaign while controlling the presidency, the Martelly bloc saw itself being excluded from the government. The provisional government would exert control over the continuation of the electoral process; whether or not there would be an electoral verification commission and the composition of the new electoral council.
Pressure was continuing to build from civil society and many political parties for an independent verification commission. Privert has signaled his opening to such an endeavor. The only political movement that has opposed such a commission is the one supporting Jovenel Moise, Martelly’s handpicked successor. Official results showed Moise in first place, but he has been dogged by allegations of fraud ever since.
If the pro-Martelly bloc failed to maintain some control over the government, the likelihood of a verification commission taking place, and either removing Moise from the race, or calling for entirely new first-round elections, would be significantly greater.
But it’s not all about the elections.
When Privert was sworn in as provisional president, very few political actors in Haiti believed he would be able to accomplish all that was needed in just 120 days. Many saw, from the beginning, that there would need to be either a new provisional leader after 120 days, or a new political agreement that would extend the mandate.
Both sides have accused the other of wanting to stall the process so as to force this next move. The pro-Martelly bloc accuses Privert of purposely choosing a prime minister that had little chance of success, in order to avoid any possibility of having elections in April and to extend his mandate. On the other hand, those supportive of Privert accuse the pro-Martelly bloc of blocking the prime minister in order to run out Privert’s 120 days, with the hope of taking control of the provisional presidency for themselves.
While the prime minister post remains unfilled, so too does the presidency of the Senate. When Privert resigned his senate seat to become provisional president, it left an opening at the top of the institution. The fight for that seat provides important context. Youri Latortue, who tried and failed to become Senate president in January (Privert got the votes), still aspires to the leadership position. If Latortue presided over the Senate, and with his political ally Chancy Cholzer leading the lower house, the pro-Martelly bloc would be in a stronger position to determine the next provisional president. The accord states that if the mandate expires, “Where appropriate, the National Assembly will take the necessary decisions.”
If Latortue had been given the Senate presidency, it’s likely that Jean would have been approved as prime minister. But, the provisional government refused, recognizing the threat that Latortue could pose in that position. The usual horse-trading didn’t work, though accusations that Jean’s backers tried to buy support in parliament have emerged. If they did, it wasn’t a great investment.
Controlling the government also includes control over demands for an audit of the finances of the Martelly administration. Privert and Jean at times indicted they were favorable to such an audit, and at others said it was best left to an elected government. The economy is stagnant and public finances have deteriorated to a dangerous level. Whether legitimate or not, calls for an audit have only heightened the political tension; some of those supporting it are clearly interested in political revenge, while some opposed clearly are trying to protect themselves from greater scrutiny.
So then where do things go from here?
It seems likely, though not assured, that Privert will have to come up with a new choice for prime minister. Some backers of Jean argue that he remains the legitimate prime minister because his nomination was published in the government’s official gazette, but this is unlikely to satisfy his opponents. The new nominee will almost certainly be someone more likely to garner the support of the pro-Martelly parliamentary bloc, but even so, the timeline for holding elections before Privert’s mandate ends looks to be too tight.
The latest an election could be held is the end of May, with the swearing in of a new president in mid-June, just when Privert’s term ends. However, given the divergent interests of the main players and previous deadlock, it seems unlikely that the electoral process could be put back on track in just two months. And certainly not if a verification commission takes places.
At the same time, Privert has begun conversations with political parties and civil society about a new political accord to replace the one signed in February, likely extending the provisional president’s mandate. Those negotiations have so far not included pro-Martelly political parties though, meaning that it is unlikely to garner support from all stakeholders.
A key player in all of this remains the major private sector business associations. Thus far they have largely backed Privert and his choice for prime minister, but their interests are potentially different. Many in the private sector regard a longer transitional government as an opportunity to push through economic and other reforms that might be less likely to be passed by a democratically-elected government.
How the main political blocs react in the coming weeks will determine what comes next.
First there is Jude Celestin, who came in second during the first-round presidential vote, according to official results. After boycotting the second-round and allying with other candidates to form the G8 opposition movement, Celestin’s interests are slowly diverging. While the G8 and Fanmi Lavalas continue to demand a verification commission before moving forward, Celestin might be willing to accept an election based on the official first-round results, provided the CEP and the interim authorities are not politically compromised, as was the case under Martelly. Will he move further from the G8 and ally with the pro-Martelly bloc?
It might make sense, but it’s still unlikely for a number of reasons. Celestin would need support from the other G8 candidates and parties in order to win the election, support that he’d be unlikely to obtain if he comes out against a verification. Further, Celestin has benefitted from the exclusion of Vérité’s Jacky Lumarque from the electoral process. But organizing a new first round presidential election would open the door to reviewing decisions of the previous CEP such as the Lumarque exclusion, which would threaten Celestin with the loss of some of his institutional – and financial – support. After running a very expensive first round campaign, Celestin may not have the funds needed to mount a serious campaign while alienating a section of his supporters.
Street protests, most often led by Pitit Dessalines (whose presidential candidate Moise Jean-Charles is a G8 member) and Fanmi Lavalas, have been muted since Privert’s ascension to the presidency. But if Privert’s lukewarm backing of a verification commission falters as pressure grows to hold elections as soon as possible, these groups would likely attempt to remobilize in the streets. They have so far put their trust, cautiously, in Privert, but it is by no means guaranteed.
Martelly’s political party and its allies in parliament find themselves in a dangerous position. They do not want to be seen as blocking the path towards elections, but appear determined to block any path forward that includes a verification commission. They have so far succeeded in preventing Privert and his allies from consolidating a government, but with reduced resources and without the sitting president as the face of the party, can they maintain that cohesion? While official election results had Jovenel Moise in first, opposition parties combined had greater overall support. In a country where political party affiliation means little, the temptation to split must be growing.
The international community, hampered in its ability to act as a mediator because of its past sins, will also play a role. The U.N. and major donors have urged the elections to take place in April and have reduced aid in the interim government. Many have openly expressed their opposition to a verification commission. Though the international community will likely be asked to pay for at least some of the next election’s budget, contrary to popular belief, their ability to influence the current situation has been diminished. For example, the UN and “Core Group” of donors had strongly urged parliament to approve Fritz Jean as prime minister. The unwavering support of Martelly during his presidency, and the insistence on moving forward with elections that had been rejected by such a large portion of the population has seriously hampered the international community’s ability to act in the current crisis.
The confusion and gridlock that has characterized the current political crisis makes it difficult to imagine an orderly exit and return to democratic order. On the other hand, given the various and competing interests, and the unlikelihood of elections in April, a new political accord seems necessary (as many have argued from day one). If done right, it could bring clarity to the chaos.
Whereas the political accord signed in early February laid out a roadmap, it left nearly every major decision to be decided down the road. It was why the accord had the support it did; each political movement thought they could still get what they wanted. But it has proven far too ambiguous and contradictory to be the basis for moving forward.
There are still a number of issues and positions that need to be decided, an inclusive political dialogue should be able to find a consensus way forward – settling the question of prime minister, senate president, verification and a new electoral council, among others. But there are still hidden, and powerful, interests at play. Interests that have nothing to do with democracy or free and fair elections. How each of the main actors respond to the prime minister’s rejection will go a long toward clearing up where those more hidden interests lie.