As interim president’s term ends, Haitians ask, ‘Who’s in charge?’

A supporter of presidential candidate Maryse Narcisse marches with a Haitian national flag during a demonstration in support of interim President Jocelerme Privert in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on June 14. Haiti's legislators will decide whether to pave way for a new interim leader until elections can be resolved or extend the temporary term for Privert.
A supporter of presidential candidate Maryse Narcisse marches with a Haitian national flag during a demonstration in support of interim President Jocelerme Privert in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on June 14. Haiti's legislators will decide whether to pave way for a new interim leader until elections can be resolved or extend the temporary term for Privert. AP

Shortly before 12:30 a.m. Wednesday, a political operative in Haiti took to Twitter and asked in Creole, “Tonight, if I have a child, under which president would it be born?”

The question, a play on some Haitians’ way of describing their age not by the year they were born but by the Haitian president in power at the time, underscored the uncharted territory Haiti finds itself in after its interim president’s 120-day mandate ended Tuesday evening with backroom negotiations stalled.

Lawmakers had failed to show up in parliament to decide the most basic question: whether interim President Jocelerme Privert should remain in office or be replaced with Prime Minister Enex Jean-Charles or some other interim leader to carry out elections as outlined in a February political accord that put a caretaker government in charge.

That indecisiveness and constitutional disarray has left Haitians — already battling drought, Zika and the worst food crisis in 15 years — wondering for the second time in four months, “Who’s in charge?”

The short answer: No one knows.

“At the moment, Privert is a de-facto president,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti-born political scientist at the University of Virginia. “It is not clear who is in charge of the government; there is a constitutional vacuum of power. Moreover, even if the National Assembly were to take a decision on Privert’s future in the next 48 hours, the current impasse is a sign that the political class is deeply divided about the immediate future, the forthcoming electoral process and Privert’s rule.”

Haiti’s elections debacle is at the root of the ongoing political crisis: No elections were held for four years under former President Michel Martelly, and last year’s legislative and presidential vote triggered allegations of fraud and violent street protests. But Fatton believes that the Provisional Electoral Council’s recently published elections calendar and the findings of a special verification commission have generated new problems that have exacerbated the crisis.

Earlier this month, the council announced that it would accept the commission’s recommendations to re-run the first round presidential vote on Oct. 9. It also said it was weighing the commission’s recommendation to revisit the races of 39 deputies and three senators who were possibly fraudulently elected.

That consideration has angered a number of lawmakers including the president of the Lower Chamber of Deputies who earlier this week told lawmakers at the reopening of parliament that the commission’s findings shouldn’t apply. Even 11 senators who signed a letter in favor of prolonging Privert’s mandate are asking for a revision in the elections calendar. They want final legislative and presidential results, now scheduled to be published in early 2017, to be given no later than Dec. 31.

Sen. Francisco De La Cruz, who signed the letter, said he wants to avoid “another crisis.” But before a vote could be held in the National Assembly, he said, “there has to be a sit down and a consensus reached. Up until now, that hasn’t happened.”

Privert’s opponents in parliament, who are mostly aligned with Martelly’s PHTK party, don’t want to go along with the special verification commission’s recommendations. They want the presidential runoffs to take place between Martelly’s presidential pick, Jovenel Moïse, and former state construction agency head Jude Célestin. As part of their campaign to get Privert booted from the palace, they’ve announced a protest for Thursday after one earlier this week fizzled and a pro-Privert protest attracted hundreds of supporters.

“The good news is that so far the country has remained relatively peaceful,” Fatton said. “It is as if Haitians are coping with this state of permanent political crisis as the new normal. It remains to be seen, however, whether this calm can last for long.”

Supporters of Privert insist that he remains in charge until both chambers of parliament, convening as the National Assembly, vote to either prolong his term or dismiss him. In that spirit Wednesday, he arrived at the presidential palace and presided over a cabinet meeting before addressing the nation.

In his address, Privert said he was available and waiting urgently for the National Assembly to decide his fate. He recapped his achievements during the last 120 days and assured the country that “the government is functional.”

“No one wants to take the risk of the country going back to another time; to the instability, the violence that the country faced between Nov. 15 and Feb. 16,” he said.

Hérold Jean-François, a journalist and Port-au-Prince-based political expert, said that under his reading of the Feb. 5 political accord, Privert remains in charge. But he added that it’s imperative that parliament assume its responsibility.

“The accord is clear,” Jean-François said.

Privert’s opponents, including supporters of Martelly’s political party, insist that Privert’s term is over and the constitution doesn’t allow for an extension.

Deputy Gary Bodeau said the political coalition of the prime minister, Jean-Charles, “will assume the executive power until the parliament and the political sector find a consensus to continue the electoral process and guarantee political stability.”

Bodeau was among the first to promote the idea of Privert’s end, posting a letter on Twitter allegedly signed by Lower Chamber President Cholzer Chancy and Acting Senate President Ronald Lareche acknowledging the end of Privert’s mandate. On Wednesday, Lareche tried to distance himself from the letter, which some are calling an attempted coup by Chancy and his allies to put Jean-Charles in charge.

Chancy did not respond to the Herald’s request for comment. But on Tuesday night, he echoed Bodeau’s position, telling a local radio station that Jean-Charles was in charge “provisionally” until the National Assembly decided otherwise.

Contacted by the Herald, Jean-Charles said he has “not received any official orders from parliament.”

He was concerned, he said, about being “sandwiched between the President and Parliament,” and wanted to “avoid the risk of clashes between civilians in the streets.”

The possibility of civil unrest also worries the international community, which on Wednesday called on the National Assembly “to take action and reach a solution which avoids an institutional vacuum.”

“Our position is: Come to a decision. If you extend him, fine. We will work with the provisional president,” said a U.S. government official. “If you don’t extend him, fine, whatever that is as long as it’s not unconstitutional. We can work with whatever you come up with but don’t leave everything uncertain.”

The official noted that only one of the two constitutionally, democratically elected powers is in place: the parliament.

“And it’s essential that one democratically elected body fulfill its function,” the official added.

Haiti’s continued uncertainty isn’t helping anyone, diplomats say. It not only makes it difficult for the average Haitian to make decisions, but also for anyone interested in investing. And it’s difficult for the country’s international partners, who have warned that Haiti risks losing international aid with its continued dysfunction.

Haiti, the U.S. official noted, has been in political crisis for two years — first trying to get elections started and then trying to get them finished.

“During that period, you’ve seen a huge economic downturn. You’ve seen the [domestic currency] in free fall. You have drought. You have Zika. There is not the investment coming into the country that there should be,” the official said. “Frankly, the political class has largely been ignoring those issues for those two years because they’ve been swirling around elections. That’s a terrible thing for Haiti, and certainly a terrible thing for the average Haitian who is worried more about what his family is going to eat tonight than whether Privert is going to be president tomorrow or not.”

Magdela Jean-Pierre, a single mother who works as a maid, said she wishes the politicians would “give the country a chance.”

But she’s not convinced her life will change much regardless of who is running the country:

“Things are not good. It’s going backward.”