Haiti’s controversial former prime minister has joined a crowded arena of contenders in the race to become the country’s next president.
But Laurent Lamothe, a Barry University graduate, could find himself in a battle over the next 10 days as the country’s Provisional Electoral Council weighs his candidacy and that of other former government officials who decided to enter the presidential fray despite lacking the required legal clearance.
“Haiti needs effective, hardworking people,” Lamothe told the Miami Herald about his political gamble.
Lamothe’s much-anticipated and to some extent, surprise move, came less than three hours before the Wednesday registration deadline and after a day of legal scrambling, U.S. congressional lobbying and personal soul searching.
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Seventy people completed the registration for the election. They hail from across the country and vary from opposition politicians to academics to entrepreneurs.
As the former head of President Michel Martelly’s government as well as minister of planning and foreign affairs, Lamothe is required to have a décharge to run under Haiti’s electoral law. The certificate is necessary to show he didn’t misused government funds. However, only parliament can grant a décharge, which is based on the findings of government auditors from the Superior Court of Auditors and Administrative Disputes (CSCCA).
Since January, Haiti has been without a functioning parliament, leaving Martelly to rule by decree. Martelly promised the international community that he would not use his emergency powers broadly, and has until now, refused to issue a decree allowing Lamothe or anyone else without proper clearance to enter the race.
Early in the process, the CSCCA announced that only parliament could grant décharges and the elections commission reenforced that position last week when it disqualified a number of former government officials from running in the scheduled Aug. 9 legislative election even though they had favorable audits. Among those barred was first lady Sophia Martelly.
The executive board of JISTIS, an opposition platform formed by presidential candidate André Michel, called for Lamothe’s application to be dismissed because he lacked the proper clearance.
The group said it considers Lamothe’s decision “a political provocation and total lack of respect for the laws of the republic.”
Lamothe’s decision is a huge risk and could test an already fragile electoral process. Should the CEP approve his candidacy, it would complicate the elections and possibly force a boycott by dozens of opposition candidates who have filed to run.
In recent days, prospective candidates have turned a 15-minute process into a carnival-like frenzy, arriving with drum beating musicians and T-shirt clad supporters in motorcades and blocking already traffic-jammed streets. One presidential hopeful, former Sen. Jean-Charles Moise, even celebrated his registration by riding around on a horse in Petionville with a motorcycle escort.
Some fear that the momentum could quickly sour with the CEP’s decision.
“Up until now, we have the impression that the CEP wants to respect the law,” said Rosny Desroches, a community leader, who was surprised to hear about Lamothe’s registration. “A report or court judgment cannot a décharge. Yes it’s abnormal and deplorable that a person who served the State can’t find a décharge. But that is the reality today with no parliament.”
It is the first time in at least 10 years that the opposition isn’t boycotting elections. Even the party of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, which had been shut out for the past decade, made its participation official. On Tuesday, Aristide’s wife, Mildred, joined Dr. Maryse Narcisse when she registered on behalf of Fanmi Lavalas.
“If they were to make an exception [for Lamothe], it can create a lot of frustration and eventually violence,” Desroches said. “We hope that the CEP apply the law.”
With three rounds of elections schedule, the international community estimates the cost could be around $80 million. An election fund currently contains $39 million.
A final budget is still be worked on, and the international community has indicated that it’s willing to help fill the $41 million gap. There are also ongoing discussions about going to two rounds by delaying the legislative elections and holding them alongside the first round of the Oct. 25 presidential balloting.
After pushing for the elections for two years, donors say they are committed to preventing them from being derailed because of a lack of funding. However, many Haitians remain skeptical about whether elections will happen.
“Our main thrust for the past few years has been to get these overdue elections done, and that’s on track,” Thomas Adams, Haiti special coordinator with the U.S. State Department, told the Herald.
A close friend of Martelly and a financial backer of his campaign, Lamothe had always denied he was a presidential candidate. When he was ousted from office in December amid a deepening political crisis, some said it was because he had been campaigning while still in the No. 2 job.
In recent days, fans have been lobbying on Twitter and Facebook for him to enter the race, daring the elections council to disqualify him. On Wednesday night, hundreds of supporters clad in red and white “Lamothe Prezidan” T-shirts blocked the streets waiting on him to arrive to hand in his documents after pre-registering online late Tuesday night.
Earlier in the day, in a last minute legal maneuver, Lamothe’s lawyers filed an emergency suit in court arguing that he should be allowed to be a candidate based on his favorable reports.
“The dysfunctional parliament is not my fault and neither I nor any other candidate should be penalized because of that,” Lamothe said. “The court order should be respected.”
The legal argument is similar to one raised by former interior Minister Thierry Mayard-Paul, who also registered as a candidate after also receiving a court order saying he should be allowed to run.
Lamothe, whose financial management as prime minister was criticized by senators and the opposition, said he’s received favorable reports from auditors.
In all, 76 candidates pre-registered to run, although in the end, only 70 completed the two-step registration process, including former Foreign Minister Duly Brutus.
Other notables: notary Jean-Henry Céant; academics Jacky Lumarque and Sauveur Pierre Etienne; entrepreneurs Jovenel Moise and Charles Baker; and former government construction agency head Jude Célestin. The list also includes former Senate President Simon Desras and ex-senator Edmonde Beauzile; former police chief Mario Andresol and current senators Steven Benoit and Edo Zenny.
The final cut will be made by the elections council after reviewing qualifications and challenges. Citizens have 72 hours to challenge the candidacy of any registered candidate.
Last week, the electoral council approved more than 1,500 people for the legislative election in which 20 Senate seats are up for grabs, and the entire 118 seats in the lower Chamber of Deputies.
“The number of candidates indicates that the system is out of control and that the party system is extremely weak,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political scientist at the University of Virginia.
Of the five dozen candidates, Fatton said he can count a dozen who can claim a following.
“It is difficult to say who will emerge from this group, but I suspect there will be surprises because it will be difficult for any of these candidates to capture a large percentage of the vote,” he said.
Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert at George Washington University, is equally baffled by the large number of candidates.
“Seems to me to be more naked quests for power, privilege, immunity than a real quest to grapple with the very serious, persistent and, in many cases, deadly issues confronting Haiti and the vast majority of its citizens,” he said.