Haiti’s elections body announces ambitions voting calendar

Robert S. Hays

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s elections commission has set a date for the country’s long overdue parliamentary elections and a controversial constitutional referendum that he is pushing to introduce before leaving office.

The calendar announced Thursday makes it clear that Moïse, whose presidential term is the subject of intense debate, has no intentions of stepping down from office on Feb. 7th, as opponents and some legal scholars are pushing for based on their reading of the law.

The schedule will draw Haitians to the polls in April to vote on a new constitution and in September to cast ballots for lawmakers and president. That timeline makes it clear that Moïse intends to continue with his one-man rule for months to come, defying the U.S. and Organization of American States. Both have repeatedly called on Moïse to hold legislative elections as soon as “technically feasible.”

“He is doing everything, utilizing all kinds of maneuvers, to hold onto power and to ensure that he remains the only person governing in the country,” said Gédéon Jean, a lawyer and human rights leader in Port-au-Prince.

The U.S. State Department has expressed concern about the deterioration of democracy in the country and Moïse’s zealous use of executive orders since he began ruling by decree a year go on Jan. 13, 2020 after announcing parliament’s partial closure due to delayed elections.

Thursday’s announcement came after the publication of another presidential decree, this one authorizing the nine-member electoral commission, also known as the CEP, to organize the constitutional referendum. The decree also allows for Haitians, among other things, to vote on the referendum even if they do not have a new voter registration card or live in the diaspora.

All of this, including the CEP’s expanded role—which critics say is illegal—has raised concerns of not just a disputed Magna Carta, should it be approved, but of deeper political turmoil in the weeks, months and possibly years ahead.

“The violence that started in 2020 with an increased number of kidnappings and killings, will only be aggravated,” Jean said. “We are no longer on the road to violence; we are knee-deep in it.”

Proposed election schedule could spark new unrest

According to the dates announced by the CEP, Haitians will first go to the polls on April 25 to vote on the constitutional referendum.

The next election will then take place five months later on Sept. 19 for the first round of legislative and presidential balloting. Runoffs are scheduled for Nov. 21, along with balloting for municipal and local offices.

The definitive results of who the next president and lawmakers are won’t be known until Jan. 22.

Lawyer André Michel, who is a leading figure in the radical opposition movement known as the Democratic and Popular Sector, called the CEP’s electoral calendar “irrelevant.”

“It’s a diversion,” said Michel, equating it to a “political provocation.”

“This electoral council was set up without any participation of the different sectors of national life; the nine members of the council were unilaterally chosen by the president,” Michel said. “It is a discredited and totally partisan electoral council.”

Earlier in the week, the Democratic and Popular Sector announced a calendar of anti-government demonstrations, set to start Sunday, as well as debates on their push for a transitional government to rule the country after Moïse’s departure.

They have based their argument for Moïse’s Feb. 7 departure from office on several factors. The first is their interpretation of two articles in the current constitution, Article 134.1 and Article 134.2, which lay out when a president’s five-year mandate should begin.

Opponents contend that the clock on Moïse’s five-year presidential term began on Feb. 7, 2016, when his predecessor, President Michel Martelly, stepped down from office. At the time, Martelly noted that his mandate was coming to an end on Feb. 7, 2016.

The president contends his term didn’t start until Feb. 7, 2017, when he officially took office, following an initial election that was scratched over accusations of fraud.

The opposition’s second argument is centered on Moïse’s own interpretation of the constitution. He dismissed a part of the Senate last year, stating their terms had ended, based off the same interpretation of the 2015 election law that he is not trying to avoid himself.

Proposed constitution may bring big changes

While Moïse’s administration has yet to reveal a draft of the new constitution, members of an advisory committee he put in place have provided some insight into what Haitians can expect when the document is made public in the coming days.

Among the biggest changes, according to an interview with Louis Naud Pierre on Port-au-Prince-based Magik 9 radio station earlier this week, is the elimination of the post of prime minister and the Haitian Senate, and the introduction of governors for each region.

Haiti would have a vice president and a unicameral Parliament represented by just one chamber, the Lower Chamber of Deputies. Also, instead of elections every two years, which are never respected, Haiti will have just one election every five years. The country’s diaspora would also have more power and opportunity to participate in elected office under what’s been drafted, Pierre said.

While some of the changes have been part of past proposals, the constitutional overhaul remains highly controversial because of the lack of consensus and support for Moïse’s referendum push. The current 1987 constitution specifically forbids any changes by way of referendum.

Moïse’s advisers, however, have argued that they are not modifying the current document but completely creating a new one, which makes the ban on referendums a moot point. His recent use of executive orders to strengthen the powers of the presidency and dismiss checks and balances, have also raised concerns inside and outside of Haiti.

On Thursday, the Trump administration maintained its position that Haiti’s long overdue legislative elections need to happen sooner than later.

“The Provisional Electoral Council’s January 7 announcement of an electoral calendar is an important step toward overdue legislative elections; however, legislative elections should not be contingent upon constitutional reform,” a State Department spokesperson said. “The United States expects Haiti to conduct free, fair, and inclusive legislative elections in order to end rule by decree as soon as possible.”

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Jacqueline Charles has reported on Haiti and the English-speaking Caribbean for the Miami Herald for over a decade. A Pulitzer Prize finalist for her coverage of the 2010 Haiti earthquake, she was awarded a 2018 Maria Moors Cabot Prize — the most prestigious award for coverage of the Americas.

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