Haiti president’s party opposes constitution referendum

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse’s plans to reshape the way his Caribbean nation is governed by giving the presidency greater powers in a new constitution is running into more opposition.

And this time it’s from within his own political party.

Liné Balthazar, the head of the Haitian Tèt Kale Party that Moïse ran under, says neither he nor the political party supports the president’s proposed June 27 referendum to overhaul the country’s constitution.

The party’s position, he says, is based on three factors: the government’s inability to deliver all new identification cards, which also double as voting cards, in time for the vote; the lack of political consensus around the referendum; and what they see as an authoritarian model in the draft magna carta that takes Haiti from a parliamentary to a presidential regime.

“If the referendum were held today, Tet Kale would have no choice but to vote against it,” Balthazar said in an interview Friday on Magik 9, the radio station owned by Haiti daily newspaper, Le Nouvelliste. “PHTK/Tet Kale is not interested in creating a constitution that favors one group at the expense of another, and repeating what we have been doing in this country for years.”

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Haitians demonstrate during a protest to denounce the draft constitutional referendum carried by the President Jovenel Moise on March 28, 2021 in Port-au-Prince. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

An embattled Moïse has been pushing the referendum forward, even paying tens of thousands to U.S. lobbyists in a bid to shore up international and diaspora support, as he touts the change as a solution to the country’s chronic instability. Opponents and legal experts contend it is illegal and will help a president accused of corruption and turning a blind eye to human rights abuses consolidate power.

It is unclear if the position of the party is a reflection of a schism among Moïse’s allies, or part of a larger effort to help Moïse find a way out of the referendum amid increased pressure from the international community and some supporters to abandon it and fears it will further stoke Haiti’s political turmoil.

Tèt Kale Party remains close to former President Michel Martelly, who has been weighing a potential run again for president and remains an important player behind the scenes. The party has said it wants to go to elections, and opposes calls by members of the opposition and civil society for a transition government to take charge. Party members fear that a June referendum mired in violence could make such a transition inevitable.

In recent days a number of politicians close to either Moïse or Martelly, including the latter’s former justice minister, Josué Pierre-Louis, have publicly come out against the referendum. They are asking Moïse to put his energy into a genuine political accord to pave the way for credible elections.

“I’ve always told the president that this government doesn’t have the capacity to organize three elections in six months,” Balthazar said, referring to Moïse’s plan to hold the June referendum, followed by legislative and presidential elections in September, and municipal and local elections in November.

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Haitians demonstrate during a protest to denounce the draft constitutional referendum carried by the President Jovenel Moise on March 28, 2021 in Port-au-Prince. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

Moïse’s referendum push has fueled mass protests and political tensions in Haiti, already mired in a multi-faceted crisis and kidnapping epidemic. Last week, Moïse swore in his sixth prime minister, Claude Joseph, after Prime Minister Joseph Jouthe resigned Wednesday amid an alarming crime wave whose latest victims include seven kidnapped Catholic clergy members who remain missing.

During his four years in office, Moïse has been unable to curb Haiti’s crime surge led by armed gangs, and today he faces a bitter dispute over his legitimacy. Many Haitians say they no longer recognize him as president, arguing his term expired on Feb. 7 under the current constitution that ties the start of his presidency to when Martelly left office on Feb. 7, 2016.

Moïse insists that his term ends next year, a claim backed by the U.S. He has blamed his troubled presidency on the current post-dictatorship constitution, which drew its inspiration from the French and gives more power to parliament than the president. That has made Haiti ungovernable, Moïse has said. Critics, however, dismiss the referendum as an outright power grab.

On Wednesday, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee added text addressing concerns about the referendum to a bipartisan bill. The legislation seeks to enhance U.S. accountability for actions taken since the January 2010 earthquake to ensure democratic elections. The new amendments introduced by Chairman Gregory Meeks, D-New York, state the “the Moïse administration lacks credibility” and that the U.S. should be barred from using taxpayer dollars to support the June vote.

Showing his determination to move forward, last week as Haiti experienced a nationwide shutdown over the kidnapping of the Catholic clergy, Moïse called on Haiti’s National Police to do what it needs to in order to secure the June referendum and upcoming elections.

Two days later, he took to Twitter to congratulate the work of the so-called independent consultative committee on the constitution and said he invites all Haitians, including those living in the diaspora, “to join hands to give Haiti another constitution, a constitution that is in everyone’s interests.”

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A protester holds up a copy of the Haitian constitution during a protest to demand the resignation of Haiti’s president Jovenel Moïse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday, Feb. 10, 2021. Haiti has lurched into a fresh political crisis amid allegations of a coup attempt and an escalating dispute over when the presidential term of Moïse should end. Dieu Nalio Chery AP

But not everyone agrees.

Balthazar described the draft constitution as a reproduction of an authoritarian model of the Haitian constitution introduced in 1935 by President Sténio Joseph Vincent. Balthazar called the proposed changes in the draft as “irritants and freedom-killing” that the party wants no part of.

“The mandate of President Jovenel is not to organize a referendum to change the constitution,” Balthazar said. “The mandate of President Jovenel is to assure the functioning of institutions under the 1987 constitution, and he has an obligation to transfer power to an elected president on the 7th of February 2022.”

Moïse’s emissaries have insisted that he doesn’t plan to benefit from the change and will not be a candidate in the next presidential election. The draft constitution, however, opens the door for previous government officials, who today are barred because they lack the necessary clearance known as a décharge from parliament, to run.

That has led many Haitians, including opposition and human rights activists, to accuse Moïse of trying to devise a way for his allies and Tet Kale political camp to retain power indefinitely. Increasingly, they have been taking to the streets in renewed protests accusing him of trying to reintroduce a dictatorship in Haiti and demanding his departure.

Guichard Doré, a close adviser of Moïse who supports the constitution project, defended the work of the advisory group and the proposed changes. The new document provides for a strict separation of power, he says, and aims to protect the president from frivolous challenges by the granting of immunity.

Haitian government lobbies amid push back

Moïse’s administration has invested tens of thousands of dollars on billboards, banners and outreach to push the constitution project, and appeal to the U.S. government on its good intentions.

In recent months, the administration has expanded its network of influential U.S.-based lobbyists to help it reach out to the Biden administration, Congress and Haitians in the diaspora. The lobbyists, which include an influential Democratic fundraiser charging $37,000 a month, have also been tasked with getting the government’s message out in the U.S. media.

Most of the lobbying firms have been contracted through Haiti’s embassy in Washington, which last week hosted a two-hour livestream town hall on Facebook with the Haitian diaspora to appeal for its support with the upcoming referendum. The event featured a government representative in charge of elections and a member of the provisional electoral commission, whose role in the June 27 referendum has been a point of contention.

The same day as the embassy diaspora event, one of the referendum’s leading backers, the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti, publicly expressed reservations about the constitutional process. The U.N. said “at this stage, the process is not sufficiently inclusive, participatory or transparent.”

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Haitians demonstrate during a protest to denounce the draft constitutional referendum carried by the President Jovenel Moise on March 28, 2021 in Port-au-Prince. VALERIE BAERISWYL AFP via Getty Images

Doré said there are “various methods to do a job. There are plenty of people who they listened to, they can’t question everyone in the country.” The committee, he added, consulted several reports on the constitution and “the first draft is based on this.”

Former Justice Minister Bernard Gousse, who has called the overhaul illegal, said the U.N. statement shows that they are finally listening to him and other civil society leaders. He noted that recent statements from the U.S. embassy in Port-au-Prince, and the Core Group, the name given to the representatives of the U.N, OAS, U.S. and other foreign nations who are influential in Haiti, do not mention the constitutional reform and only speak of the need for Haiti to hold legislative elections.

“It is clear that the support from the international community is slowly but surely crumbling,” said Gousse, who called the process “messed up.”

Any mention of the constitution reform was also omitted by Joseph, the new interim prime minister, in a tweet responding to Acting Assistant Secretary of State for the State Department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs Julie Chung, after his nomination by Moïse last week.

Gousse added that the Biden administration, which announced last week that it had nominated the current U.S. ambassador to Haiti, Michele Sison, for a new job at the State Department, should take advantage of the upcoming vacancy “to look at the issues with different eyes, mainly by reaching out to others in civil society that were not listened to before.”

Why draft Haiti Constitution makes many uncomfortable

If many consider Haiti’s current constitution to be modern because of its promotion of human rights and liberties yet problematic because of its ambiguities and the excessive powers bestowed to parliament and a prime minister, critics say the proposed draft is archaic and gives too much power to the executive.

In a recent interview with the Miami Herald’s editorial board, Joseph said the Moïse administration does not yet have a finished product.

“President Jovenel Moïse does not have a particular constitution that he wants to put forward and force people to accept. There is a proposed constitution that is submitted to the public’s attention and we have gathered all comments and remarks to have a finished product that will come from a consensus,” he said.

Among some of the eyebrow raising changes: a unicameral parliament that eliminates the Senate and eliminates residency requirements for lawmakers who will now be restricted on what matters they can legislate on; a one-round winner takes all election process; a vice president who is elected on the president’s ticket, instead of a prime minister, and the inability to impeach or prosecute a president during the first year into his five-year term.

The proposal also includes provisions that restrict how often criminal accusations can be brought against a president and establishes a two-month limit after a chief of state leaves office to bring a complaint. Vague language in one of the articles, reinforces presidential immunity by stating that citizens can only sue “for acts related to his duties and performed as president.” In other words, only his decisions can be challenged, not him.

Similar to the 1935 constitution, the draft does not prohibit the nationalization, confiscation of personal property and buildings for political reasons. The current constitution does, even if not always followed.

Even a right that the government has touted as being a positive, the ability of Haitians living abroad to run for office, has a caveat. There is no guarantee for diaspora voting in the current text, which will be subject to the whims of who is president and an electoral law.

Jerry Tardieu, a former Haitian lawmaker, recently spent two years soliciting feedback from Haitians throughout the country and in the diaspora about changes parliament could make to the current constitution though an amendment process. He said what has been proposed by Moïse’s constitution commission goes against the changes outlined in three reports his own advisors suggested that aim to provide an equilibrium between the powers of the executive and parliament.

“Its contents are a serious danger to our fragile democracy as they risk weakening institutions and exposing Haitian society to the dangers of a monarch-president, generating ongoing tensions and chronic political instability,” he said.

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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.