Haiti finally has an elections commission, but controversy brews over constitution modifications

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Haitian President Jovenel Moise, who has finally appointed a new nine-member Provisional Electoral Council to organize Haiti’s next elections, is being accused of going too far in the use of his executive powers and violating the country’s constitution.

Moise made the appointments to the council, known as the CEP, by presidential decree. The members, relative unknowns, and the sectors of Haitian society that they represent, were published late Friday in the government’s newspaper. According to the decree, the new CEP is not only tasked with organizing municipal, legislative and presidential elections, but must also prepare a constitutional referendum.

That added mandate, say Haiti legal scholars, political party leaders and human rights observers, is not only “illegal and unconstitutional,” but reminiscent of a darker period in the country’s history and risks deepening a worsening political crisis already marred by armed gangs, violent protests and growing poverty.

Following his controversial 1957 presidential election, Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier changed Haiti’s constitution while consistently violating it before consolidating power and asking voters in 1964 to approve a constitutional referendum that made him “president for life.” He and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who succeeded him, would rule Haiti for nearly 30 years before a popular 1986 uprising forced the younger Duvalier from power and into exile in France.

“That’s why the constitution we currently have, anticipating this, prevents you from changing it in any fashion because presidents are always trying to change the constitution to favor their personal interests,” said Samuel Madistin, a lawyer and chairman of the board of directors of the human rights group La Fondasyon Je Klere.

In a press statement Monday, Fondasyon Je Klere said Moise’s referendum request to the new elections panel not only violates Article 284-3 of the current constitution that “strictly prohibits” any modifications by referendum, but it also violates section 282 of the constitution that spells out how it can be amended by Parliament.

“Historically, the constitutional changes that took place in violation of a current constitution and without any political consensus have always given birth to fierce and bloodthirsty dictatorships,” Fondasyon Je Klere said, citing the “Papa Doc” era.

Bernard Gousse, a legal scholar and former justice minister, said neither gauging the interest of the Haitian electorate in a new constitution or asking them to approve or reject a new constitution is the role of a Provisional Electoral Council. What Moise has done, Gousse said, fits the definition of treason as defined in the current constitution.

“They went too far. They violated the constitution,” said Gousse, who served as justice minister under Haiti’s 2004-06 U.S.-backed interim government and was a candidate for prime minister during former President Michel Martelly’s administration.

Friday’s presidential decree does not say how a constitutional referendum would be worded. But Moise, who has been ruling Haiti by decree since January and has been the object of anti-government protests since coming into office, has said that under the current 1987 constitution the Haitian presidency is too weak and he has been on a personal campaign to get a new constitution.

The U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince called the announcement on the formation of the CEP an important step toward conducting legislative elections.

“We look forward to the issuance of an electoral decree & announcement of legislative elections calendar to re-establish Haiti’s parliament as soon as technically feasible,” the embassy said in a tweet.

The U.S. did not address the constitutional referendum issue. While it has publicly been silent on Moise’s push, he has found support from the head of the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti. Helen La Lime, U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ representative, told the U.N. Security Council in June that it is increasingly evident that a new constitution in Haiti “is required to break the cycle and create the characteristics for the country to thrive.”

The U.N. has yet to say anything about the referendum mandate issued to the new CEP, but La Lime is schedule to issue a new report on the situation in Haiti on behalf of Guterres in the coming days ahead of a scheduled Security Council briefing on Haiti next week.

On Monday, National Palace Spokesman Mackenson Cange, appearing on Port-au-Prince radio station, Magik 9, defended the referendum mandate to the CEP, saying Haitians on social media and on local radio agree that Haiti needs a new constitution.

Cange repeatedly dodged journalists’ questions about whether giving such a task to the elections council was a violation of the constitution. Pressed further, he told the reporters that a new constitutional assembly had already been named, though he couldn’t recall the names of its members, and a constitution was already in the process of being written.

During the interview Cange also defended the selection of the nine appointees, saying the president, who has faced resistance in making appointments or getting a political consensus, had written the different sectors of Haitian society and asked them to send a representative.

Key sectors that have been part of a provisional electoral commission since the mid-80s — the Catholic Church, the Protestant Federation, private sector associations, presidents of universities and human rights advocates — have all categorically refused to participate and designate a representative as they have done for past elections, citing concerns about the credibility of any voting under Moise.

Since Friday’s announcement, some sectors that have been linked to some of the new CEP appointees have sought to distance themselves, saying they did not participate in the panel’s formation. Issues have also been raised over two members, one representing the disabled community and the other Haitians Living Abroad, which are not among the traditional sectors used to make up a provisional electoral council.

In a stern rebuke, the political party Rasin Kan Pep La announced that it had expelled two of its members after one of them, Guylande Mesadieu, was named to the CEP on behalf of the human rights sector. Mesadieu’s husband and fellow political party member, Antonal Mortime, who is the co-director of a human rights organization, Defender Plus, was also kicked out.

“We had been in discussions with them for over a month,” said party spokesman Camille Chalmers. Chalmers said the two had not only violated the party’s bylaws but betrayed the group when they made “a political choice that is contrary to” the party’s publicly stated position that it will not collaborate with any of Moise’s initiatives.

Moise “wants to erase all of the democratic gains we have made since 1986 in order to install an autocratic regime and have the concentration of power in the hands of one person,” Chalmers said.

“The fact they did this via the electoral commission is very significant because the constitution says that (the CEP) should be independent so that we can break the cycle of elections always being controlled by the interior ministry,” he added. “This is a selection that is being organized in order to perpetrate a state of exclusion where the population cannot participate, and is not present.”

Last week, in a strongly worded statement, a senior U.S. State Department official warned members of Haiti’s opposition and civil society that they could face sanctions if they stand in the way of the elections process. The position, tone and subsequent tweets by the U.S. Embassy in Port-au-Prince received strong resistance and pushback on radio and social media from Haitians.

Haitians across the board strongly criticized the Trump administration, accusing it of not being interested in credible elections in Haiti but rather “a selection” and “an operation” in which people are placed into office so that the U.S. can say democracy prevailed.

“The State Department doesn’t understand there is a change that has taken place in the political reality of Haiti. We are no longer in 1915 where there is a total control of our political institutions and where when they issue an order, everyone obeys,” Chalmers said, referring to the year the U.S. began its 19-year occupation of Haiti. “Today it is clear that the political apparatus is not going to accept orders from the U.S. like little children or house slaves, and simply obey.

“This is a diplomacy that is no longer acceptable and a rapport of submission that is no longer acceptable between two countries,” he added. “The U.S. needs to understand the situation has changed, the geopolitical relations have changed and there needs to be a new strategy, a new language concerning countries in the Caribbean.”


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