The former head of Haiti’s Senate and National Assembly was elected the country’s interim president Sunday after a vote that went to a second round and took nearly 12 hours.
Jocelerme Privert, 62, beat out two other candidates — both were former Senate presidents as well — to lead a 120-day provisional government charged with organizing Haiti’s twice-postponed presidential and partial legislative runoffs. He was sworn in shortly after, the blue and red presidential sash placed over his chest.
Hours later in his first address as Haiti’s 51st president at an official ceremony on the lawn of the National Palace, Privert called for unity and sacrifice to help the country out of the political and electoral crisis that propelled him into power. He also called on the country’s private sector to meet its tax obligations while stressing that his priority is to return Haiti to constitutional normality.
“We have shown that we can transcend our differences, our quarrels in favor of the public interest,” he said at the ceremony attended by the foreign diplomatic corps, government ministers, opposition politicians and notable figures like Mildred Aristide, the wife of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
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“We should welcome the peaceful and inclusive nature of this new step in resolving the crisis,” Privert said.
Privert’s historic election was the result of a last-minute accord that was signed by him as head of the Senate, Lower Chamber of Deputies President Cholzer Chancy and former President Michel Martelly on the eve of Martelly’s departure from office. Martelly left office on Feb. 7 without an elected successor because of a disputed Oct. 25 presidential vote.
Opposition parties and local watchdog groups allege that the balloting was marred by “massive” fraud in favor of Martelly’s handpicked successor, Jovenel Moïse. A relatively unknown serial entrepreneur who goes by the moniker “Banana Man,” Moïse has denied the allegations.
Still, the allegations have triggered violent street protests, calls for a vote verification and a boycott by opposition presidential candidate Jude Célestin. Célestin qualified for the runoff against Moïse but said he will not participate in a second round until, among other things, the recommendations of an electoral commission charged with evaluating the vote are applied.
“It’s regrettable that the political actors were not involved in a dialogue with parliament to find an accord designating a provisional president. But now we have to insist that President Privert take all of the necessary steps for the electoral process to continue,” said Pierre Esperance, the executive director of the National Human Rights Defense Network, which was part of a coalition of electoral observers.
A former tax expert turned politician with more than 30 years experience in the public sector, Privert faces a daunting task in the coming days and weeks. His first job will be to select a consensus prime minister and government. Together, they will then need to form a new nine-member electoral council with the trust and credibility to apply the recommendations of the electoral commission and organize the postponed vote.
“For the process to be credible, there needs to be an evaluation and new verification,” Esperance said. “Nothing can happen in the electoral process without them doing this.”
Privert’s presidential win came after 12 hours of debate, improvisation and discussions in the parliament over how to proceed with the historic vote. This is the first time that Haiti’s parliament voted in a president since 1946. Other provisional presidents have been tapped by the Supreme Court or appointed.
Both parliament’s role in the process and Privert’s candidacy came under heavy criticism, however, from opposition groups. Some critics said because he had led the accord’s negotiations he should refrain from applying. Others objected to him because of a 2004 massacre in St. Marc in which he was accused by the then U.S.-backed interim government of killing opponents of then-exiled President Aristide. As minister of interior at the time, he was jailed for two years and eventually cleared by a court.
During the debate, some lawmakers, seeking to block his election, suggested that he refrain from voting even though he remained a sitting senator. He ignored the request and twice voted for himself.
Some hope that Privert’s elections and opposition ties — he is seen as part of the political left and has served as a senator under two of former President René Préval’s political party banners — will help calm the systematic and often violent protests that have been taking place.
“We are in very difficult situation,” Sen. Jean Baptiste Bien-Aime told his fellow lawmakers before Privert’s election. The current crisis, he said, risks plunging Haiti into “a political tsunami.”
Initially 13 people applied for the interim president job. The list was reduced to three: Privert and former senators and head of the National Assembly Edgard Fils Leblanc and Dejean Belizaire. The contest, however, was really between Privert and Leblanc, who despite his opposition roots as a member of the Organization of the People in Struggle (OPL), had the backing of Martelly’s Haitian Tèt Kale Party (PHTK) supporters.
Leblanc served in the Senate in the mid-1990s and at the time, OPL dominated the parliament in the midst of another political crisis over disputed elections. His candidacy and the alliance with PHTK last week, revived an old political war within the Lavalas movement between its two wings, OPL and Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party.
After the first round of voting, Privert led the Senate but had lost the Lower of Chamber of Deputies to Leblanc after members placed their secret hand-written scraps of paper in separate urns decorated with the Haitian flag. After discussions and negotiations, a second vote was held.
Privert finished with a combined 77 votes to Leblanc’s 33. Belizaire, who had no votes in the first round, finished with two.
At 3:35 a.m. Chancy, the president of the lower chamber, declared Privert “the provisional president of the Republic of Haiti.”
Moments later, Privert put on the traditional black hat worn by the president of National Assembly, and handed over his resignation letter from the Senate. He then removed the hat, raised his right hand toward the sky and promised to uphold the constitution and “respect the rights of the Haitian people.”
The presidential sash was then placed around him.
Privert inherits not only a country with an electoral crisis but one also facing its worst food and drought crisis in 15 years. Last week, the country’s second largest city Cap-Haitien was hit by terrible floods.