With foreign diplomats looking on, an uneasy Haitian President Michel Martelly looked into the television cameras and in a solemn address to the nation, affirmed his support for credible and fair elections even as he assumed “responsibility” for the political stalemate that has plunged Haiti deeper into turmoil.
It was an about face for a man who, until that TV address on Friday, blamed Haiti’s fractured opposition for a brewing political crisis that resulted with last week’s dissolution of parliament.
“Some 28 years after the adoption of the Constitution in March 1987, we still struggle to put in place all the institutions that our fundamental Charter had planned,” Martelly acknowledged. “Today 44 months after my installation... we must humbly admit our weaknesses and our collective mistakes, arising from old demons of mistrust, divisions and intolerance that still cross our minds after more than 200 years.”
For the second time this century, a Haitian president is ruling without a functioning parliament, meaning in essence Haiti has one-man rule. The next few days and weeks will be critical in determining whether Haiti — and Martelly, who beginning Friday will host a three-day visit by the U.N. Security Council — can properly manage a political tinderbox.
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Will his address to the nation translate into a real process of inclusion, and set the path toward legitimate elections later this year?
Observers say he must for Haiti’s sake.
“It’s the first time a sitting Haitian President has done what you usually see leaders of the modern world do: When something bad happens, say ‘the ultimate responsibility is with the president,’” said Reginald Boulos, the Haitian businessman who headed the 11-member presidential commission Martelly appointed in November to help him find a way out of the turmoil. “But the speech is the first step. It cannot be the last.”
With elections delayed for more than three years, Haiti today has no elected mayors, no elected community representatives. The terms of a second-tier of the 30-member Senate has expired, leaving only 10 Senators. The entire 99-member Chamber of Deputies also left before it could approve the new prime minister or government.
There is no head of the Supreme Court, and the terms of the Governor of the Central Bank and several board members have ended while the term of the Chief of Police will be over in a few months. All require parliament’s blessings.
The institutional void has Martelly’s opponents stepping up calls for his resignation, with one leader, attorney Andre Michel, saying that while they are not advocating violence with renewed street demonstrations, “when there is no parliament, anything can happen.”
“Haiti will know dark days without a working Parliament, without a constitutional government, without an electoral board and a lame judicial guardianship that is at the behest of the executive,” former Senate President Simon Desras said. “Many people are in the streets almost daily to demand the resignation of the President. It is a defacto reign that unfortunately, is being unconditionally supported by the international community.”
Moments after his Friday speech, Martelly installed longtime opposition leader and former Port-au-Prince Mayor Evans Paul as prime minister. On Monday, less than 24 hours after their names were released as promised, the 36 men and women tapped to form what is supposed to be consensus government were sworn in at the National Palace.
With Martelly keeping nearly all of the key ministries, some are questioning the cabinet, saying it doesn’t reflect his speech, in which he said he wanted “to ensure that the composition of the next government and its management...fully reflect this desire for reconciliation with the opposition.”
Though opposition groups got some ministries, nine of the 20 ministers in the new government had previously served under ousted Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe. Among the more controversial appointments, which was nixed after pressure from the international community: the swearing-in of a former police officer, Carel Alexandre, as the Secretary of State for Public Security.
All face a tough task — from creating the confidence needed for long-overdue legislative and local elections, and the presidential balloting, due this year, to governing amid tough economic times.
Five years after Haiti’s devastating Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake, which saw millions of dollars in foreign debt forgiven, Haiti is once again in deep debt. Its main source for post-quake rebuilding and Martelly’s social programs, the discounted-Venezuela Petrocaribe oil program, is being depleted with the drop in global oil prices and Venezuela’s own tough economic times. Instead of achieving its projected 4.8 percent growth at the end of 2014, Haiti achieved 2.8 percent.
Three protests a week, make it impossible for [the Haiti tax office] and Customs to collect revenues,” outgoing Finance Minister Marie Carmelle Jean-Marie said, while noting that a drop in consumption is also gravely impacting government coffers as customs revenues take a dive.
For his part, Martelly will have to convince Haitians and the international community that he’s not only a defender of democracy but that he’s committed to doing what he hasn’t done in the four years since he became president: hold elections and work with the opposition.
Some, like Boulos, are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. Others, like Senator Steven Benoit, are not.
“After he came into power, he told all of us in a meeting, ‘I don’t like parliament, I am going to destroy parliament,’ ” said Benoit, a longtime friend-turned political adversary and one of the 10 remaining lawmakers. “That was the dream, and he has kept his word.”
Senator Steven Benoit isn’t convinced the President has changed.
“The Americans think they can control Martelly,” said Benoit, whose bitter exchange with the president during a meeting last week made headlines here. “Nobody can control Martelly. He’s a trickster. Martelly is playing everybody including his bosses, the Americans.”
Martelly’s speech came hours after he spoke to Vice President Joe Biden via telephone. The U.S. had hoped a last-minute deal brokered between Martelly and several opposition political parties would have allowed for lawmakers’ terms to be extended for up to four months, and an electoral law to be passed. But parliament dissolved before either measures could be voted after pro and anti-Martelly senators failed to show up to provide the necessary 16 member quorum.
Biden commended Martelly’s “efforts to reach a negotiated agreement,” while recognizing that he had “made several important concessions in order to reach consensus, and expressed disappointment that Haiti’s Parliament did not pass an electoral law before lapsing on January 12,” said the statement from the White House.
Hours before the signing of the deal, the U.S. Embassy issued a press release stating U.S. support for Martelly should he have to rule by decree. Many believed that statement, and later U.S. Ambassador Pamela White’s appearance in the parliament chambers on the night of the aborted vote, were deal changers that helped encourage senators not to show up. Both were widely condemned as un-welcomed interference in Haitian domestic politics.
Even so, the international community has a critical role to play, say Haiti experts.
“With the dissolution of Haiti's parliament creating an absence of national — that is, Haitian — checks and balances in political process, international actors shoulder the responsibility of trying to ensure that democratic process is not stymied by strong-man rule,” said Robert Maguire, a Haiti specialist at George Washington University.
“They also must take the lead in assuring that the country's overdue parliamentary and municipal elections, as well as the presidential election required before year's end, are organized on a level playing field and are inclusive of all Haitian political parties and organizations wishing to participate in them.”
The U.S., however, is in a particularly fragile position, he said.
“Assuming an un-biased and balanced approach in support of Haiti's electoral process may be particularly difficult for the United States, given its track record of strong, unwavering, and seemingly uncritical support of President Martelly,” Maguire said.
Robert Fatton, a University of Virginia political science professor and Haiti expert, said despite the ongoing domestic criticism of Martelly, he appears to be in good shape. He’s saying the right things and has the support of the international community, from the U.S. to Brazil.
If the electoral council is soon named and elections are scheduled some time soon, Fatton said, “we may be entering a new phase in Haitian politics.”
“If things go slowly and [Paul] is incapable of establishing his authority and independence, things could easily fall apart,” he said.
Like the U.S., the Security Council also will publicly reiterate its support for Martelly while urging “the radical” opposition to stop its politics of resignation demands.
“Privately, the UN Security will tell Martelly that he has no other alternative but to do what he said in his speech installing Evans Paul as Prime Minister,” Fatton said.
As for the opposition and their stepped up anti-government demonstrations, Fatton said, if the various groups “cannot put large numbers in the streets, then Martelly will have outflanked them and these groups will have to compromise and join the other so-called moderate parties and accept that Martelly will not be resigning.
“So at the moment Martelly is winning the chess game, but the positions are not totally aligned for him to claim checkmate,” he added.