PORT-AU-PRINCE -- For a man who says he’s not a presidential candidate, Haitian Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe is campaigning like one.
From visiting a remote central Haiti village with United Nations head Ban Ki-moon to stumping at a Haitian diaspora town hall in North Miami, Lamothe last week was everywhere a candidate needs to be — although the start of the 2015 Haitian presidential race is more than a year away.
“That is how prime ministers run,” said Robert Fatton, a University of Virginia politics professor and Haiti expert. “That is not a Haitian thing. This is politics.”
Lamothe, 41, the tech savvy businessman-turned-politician, insists that he’s not a candidate.
“This is part of my job; what I am doing as prime minister, it is to govern; it is to manage,” Lamothe said before joining more than a dozen flown-in members of his cabinet in front an overflow crowd for his televised town hall in North Miami. “I am prime minister today, and I am focusing on that.”
But Lamothe’s schedule reflects a Hillary Clinton-like method of raising a future candidate’s profile without officially announcing for office. And that is prompting concern and panic in Haiti where observers say the presidential posturing is intensifying a crisis prompted by legislative and local elections that are three years behind schedule.
In order to run, Lamothe would need certification that he has not misused government funds. But the opposition-controlled Senate is unlikely to support giving him the décharge, leaving opponents and some supporters of President Michel Martelly to see delaying the Oct. 26 elections until next year as key. Martelly will rule by decree, practically guaranteeing that Lamothe will get the needed clearance. Opponents believe the delay would lead to Martelly’s downfall.
If the elections are not held, Haiti risks being thrust into chaos a decade after a U.N. Peacekeeping mission arrived to strengthen democracy, observers warn.
“I am particularly concerned that the political transition in Haiti will undergo regression,” Ban, the U.N. secretary general, warned last week at the end of an overnight visit. “Holding inclusive elections in October is essential for the continuity of parliament in 2015, and for the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law.”
With President Michel Martelly and the opposition still at logger heads over the delayed elections, analysts say the future doesn’t look bright for Haiti. Increasingly, October elections look impossible. And while a first-round in December remains do-able, there is growing fear the elections won’t take place until next fall alongside the presidential balloting.
That would leave Haiti with no lower chamber and just 10 out of 30 senators come the second Monday in January.
“That would be catastrophic for the country even if there are sectors who think it would work in their favor; a devastating political tsunami,” said Sauveur Pierre Etienne, national coordinator for the opposition Organization of People in Struggle (OPL), which has ended its boycott of the elections. “It feels as if the focus is no longer on the delayed local and legislative elections, but on the presidential elections.”
Fueling the political friction, say analysts, is Lamothe’s constant campaign-style stops that are generating suspicion and intrigue even among foreign diplomats about his presidential ambitions. One former prime minister, Jacques-Édouard Alexis, has even publicly called for “a common front” to stop Lamothe’s rise to the presidency, prompting push-back from Lamothe’s supporters.
“The prime minister is in an electoral campaign,” Etienne said, “and the political parties are panicking, other candidates are panicking.”
The major hurdle that elections supporters face is the lack of a law governing the election. Six senators have refused to support an amended law, saying they lack confidence in the nine-member provisional electoral council (CEP) that will have to oversee the balloting. Also, four of the largest opposition parties are boycotting the elections, saying they also have no confidence in the CEP.
“We changed the CEP four times in order to organize this election; we went 28 steps already,” Lamothe said. “Unfortunately, not all the cards are with us.”
“Everybody knows we will not have elections this year,” opposition Senator Steven Benoit said, accusing Martelly and Lamothe of “pretending they want to have elections but of course they know very well, they are not going to have it.” Benoit is not among the senators refusing to amend the election law.
For his part, Martelly has yet to officially anoint his successor.
Still, the singer-turned-president who overshadowed Lamothe at the North Miami meeting by singing and swinging his waist on stage, has made several veiled references that lead watchers to believe Lamothe will get his blessing — although nothing is guaranteed.
“The way Martelly was talking, he clearly said at one point, ‘I will put my hand on the anointed candidate,’” Fatton said about the North Miami gathering. “Clearly that was an indication that he’s going to put his hand on Lamothe.”
Fatton believes reports of conflict between the two friends have been grossly exaggerated.
“I think there is an agreement there. He is the logical candidate,” Fatton said of Lamothe. “The guy has a wonderful PR machine. You go to all of the social media, he’s there. He’s all over the country traveling, inaugurating things without saying he’s running and obviously, without also saying anything bad about Martelly, and pushing Martelly as ‘The Man,’ and then he’s just in the background.”
Lamothe’s schedule provides a textbook case in running for president:
Monday: Lamothe shook hands and distributed free government food to the poor as he hosted Ban amid a gaggle of TV cameras.
Tuesday: Lamothe played table tennis with Ban and other diplomats as he helped to inaugurate an Olympics-financed sports complex.
Friday: In Miami, he glad-handed with Haitian Americans, pitched post-earthquake progress and attended a reception in his honor, where he took no questions.
Saturday: Lamothe was center stage at a televised town hall in North Miami.
Sunday: He threw out the first pitch at a Miami Marlins game, much like any major U.S. candidate for office or cultural figure.
“There is no one else in the cabinet who is a serious candidate. If he says he’s a candidate now, they can attack him more. It’s very much like Hillary,” Fatton said. “He’s looking at the scenery; he’s using the position of prime minister to be prime minister but obviously also to be a candidate.”