A former interior minister who was jailed — and eventually cleared and released two years later —under Haiti’s 2004-2006 U.S.-backed interim government is the new president of the Haitian Senate.
Sen. Jocelerme Privert, an opposition senator from the Nippes Department, won with 15 votes and 7 abstentions Thursday while two other senators walked out on the vote. Privert was initially elected to the Senate under INITE, a political platform that was created by former President René Préval and several other political leaders. Today, he’s a member of Préval’s new platform, Verite (Truth).
One of the more experienced lawmakers, Privert has held several government jobs, including interior minister under former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. In 2004, he was arrested in the revolt against Aristide after being accused of being the mastermind behind a massacre in the city of Saint Marc. Most independent observers at the time said the accusations had no foundation and he was eventually released — two years later.
Privert had spent the week trying to get a majority of senators to support his candidacy since the Senate returned Monday. Haiti’s parliament had spent a year on hiatus because of delayed elections. Six Senate seats remain up for grabs in partial legislative runoffs scheduled for Jan. 24, and no party currently enjoys a majority.
Haiti’s parliament, and Senate in particular, is expected to play a critical role in the ongoing political crisis triggered by the Aug. 9 and disputed Oct. 25 presidential balloting. This has raised concerns by some foreign diplomats, who while pushing for the re-entry of parliament, also worry about the role it can play in the fate of the scheduled presidential runoff.
On Monday, the body successfully stalled the opening of the legislative year in which both chambers meet as the National Assembly, denying President Michel Martelly the chance to issue his last “state of the nation” before his presidential term ends on Feb. 7. On Thursday, Privert would not say when the National Assembly would take place; Thursday’s session, he said, remains ongoing and will resume Tuesday. He promised that the Senate will take its “responsibility as the guardian of democracy.”
Among the priorities on the Senate’s list: establishing a Permanent Electoral Council, a Constitutional Court, and picking the next head of the Haiti National Police and board of the Central Bank.
Privert initially faced Sen.Youri Latortue, an adviser to Martelly, who was hoping to control the Senate and the Lower Chamber of Deputies. But Latortue later withdrew. He and another senator left the chamber before the vote.
Earlier in the week, Deputy Cholzer Chancy, a member of Latortue’s AAA party, was voted president of the Lower Chamber, giving Martelly an initial victory.
Latortue, who represents the Artibonite Valley, has been dogged by questions about his first-round win in the fraud and violence-marred Aug. 9 elections despite the vote being canceled at several polling stations in his area. Some senators unsuccessfully tried to stop his swearing in on Monday until a Senate commission charged with investigating electoral fraud issues its report.
Hours before the vote, opposition candidate Jude Célestin reaffirmed his position in an interview with Radio Kiskeya. He said he plans to write the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) to officially notify them that “we are not in the election.”
“My position has always been clear,” Célestin said in the interview. “Jude Célestin will not participate in the Jan. 24 election, which isn’t an election but a selection.”
Célestin said he had hoped the CEP would have adhered to his demands to adopt the sweeping recommendations of a five-member electoral commission as well as his own conditions for running. They include the resignation of members and a political dialogue before the runoff.
Last week, CEP President Pierre-Louis Opont said the council would adopt some of the commission’s recommendations, a move hailed by the Electoral Observation Mission of the Organization of American States. The mission noted, that the number of accredited party representatives known as mandataires would be reduced from 900,000 for the Oct. 25 elections to 38,000, and they will only be allowed to vote at polling stations where they are registered. Also, the presidential candidates will be allowed to appoint two representatives to supervise the work at the tabulation center where the votes are tallied.
“In light of these efforts, the EOM/OAS calls upon the two run-off contenders to participate actively in the election,” the organization said.
Gerardo de Icaza, the director of the department for electoral cooperation and observation of the OAS, said the commission served its purpose in providing a series of recommendations to have an improved second round.
“There has to be at some point a negotiation and people have to come back and say, ‘We believe in elections,’ ” he said.
Critics, however, have questioned the CEP’s ability to make the changes in such a short timeframe. Meanwhile, one CEP member announced that she was temporarily suspending her duties while another announced his resignation on Friday, becoming the second of the nine members to step down in recent weeks.
Earlier this week, Opont’s wife, Marie Lucie Bonhomme, a respected journalist, called on her fellow Haitians to find a way to get the CEP “to stop the electoral machine.” She said a vote held where only one candidate has agreed to participate “can only help to worsen the crisis with disastrous consequences for the lives of the population and especially the most vulnerable.”
“The U.S., Canada, the OAS observers, the mission of the European Union, France and so on, are pushing with all their might the machine against the wall. It makes you wonder what are the motivations of the international community,” she said on Radio Vision2000.
As Haitians continue to debate the fate of this month’s runoff, government-backed candidate Jovenel Moïse, meanwhile, is continuing to campaign. At a rally in the Central Plateau, he called on Haitians to vote on Jan. 24. Moïse has disputed opposition claims that the election was marred with fraud and irregularities to benefit him.
He and his PHTK party leaders have accused Célestin of campaigning. Célestin denied the accusations, while also rejecting claims by some CEP members that the deadline for him to remove his candidacy has already passed.
“I am a Haitian citizen who travels the country. Jude Célestin existed before and will exist after,” he said. “Everyone knows when we do a campaign and how we do campaigns.”