In Haiti, a re-run election finally produces a new president

MIAMI — Haiti’s seemingly unending presidential election is over.

Jovenel Moise, a businessman from northern Haiti and political protege of former President Michel Martelly, was declared the winner of the country’s November presidential election Tuesday by the country’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP). He defeated 26 other candidates in an election rerun from the year before and then repeatedly postponed, once by a hurricane.

The council published the result after an electoral court rejected allegations of “massive fraud” during the Nov. 20 election. Though a judges’ panel had discovered some irregularities during verification of 12 percent of the ballots, the council said the irregularities were not enough to affect the final outcome of the vote.

On his Facebook page, Moise promised that his five-year presidency will be marked by “political will and pragmatism.”

Moise, 48, was declared the winner with 55.60 percent. His closest competitor, Jude Celestin, the former head of the state construction agency, finished a distant second with just over 19.57 percent. Celestin’s final vote total only rose by 5 percentage points after the verification, which he and two others demanded after challenging the preliminary results.

“I do not recognize these results because neither I nor my representatives were present,” Celestin, 54, told the Miami Herald.

He said the CEP didn’t handle the challenge to the results correctly. “They are definitely hiding something.”

Three days into the verification, Celestin’s attorneys — as well as those representing the third- and fourth-place finishers, Jean-Charles Moise and Maryse Narcisse — left the Vote Tabulation Center after judges restricted their access to tally sheets. Attempts to remove the judges and to have the restrictions lifted were rejected by the CEP.

Haiti last year agreed to redo its first round of the presidential vote after a five-member Independent Commission of Evaluation and Verification, appointed by interim President Jocelerme Privert, ruled that the vote was such a disaster it should start over.

The fraud allegations, which Moise had insisted were untrue, sparked violent street protests. The crisis led to Martelly ending his presidential term on Feb. 7 without an elected successor, and brought Haiti its second caretaker government in 12 years.

This week, violent protests once more flared up. As supporters of Narcisse’s Fanmi Lavalas political party protested in Port-au-Prince, Celestin called on his supporters to remain mobilized. On Tuesday, the U.S. Embassy advised U.S. citizens to stay away from one neighborhood — Delmas 65 — after receiving reports of demonstrations.

Calling on Haiti’s opposition to accept the results, U.S. State Department spokesman John Kirby said the publication of the final presidential results is “a positive step for the full restoration of that nation’s democratic institutions.”

Still, the tensions do not bode well for Moise, a serial entrepreneur who campaigned under the moniker Neg Bannan Nan or the Banana Man, a reference to his farming roots. Though he has never held elected office, he now must take charge of a country wracked by political instability and chronic problems. They include double-digit inflation, anemic economic growth, drastically reduced foreign aid, a rapidly depreciating currency, a deadly cholera epidemic and growing security concerns with the eventual departure of the United Nations peacekeeping force known as MINUSTAH.

Since 2014, Haiti’s economic growth has shrunk from 2.9 percent to 1.4 percent last year even before Hurricane Matthew slammed the country’s southern peninsula as a Category 4 storm, causing $2.8 billion in damages.

Meanwhile, inflation stands at 10 percent and could go to at least 15 percent this year, said Port-au-Prince economist Kesner Pharel, who noted preliminary forecasts show 1 percent economic growth.

“The numbers are extremely scary,” Pharel said. “We’re looking at no jobs in the economy, and more than 25 percent of people in extreme poverty and more than 60 percent in poverty.

“It’s going to be a very difficult situation for the new government coming in,” he added, “coming from an election where not too many people participated.”

Even with his Haitian Tet Kale Party (PHTK) political party and allies likely to have a majority in parliament, Moise faces the prospect of a weakened presidency because a minority bloc of lawmakers will be able to block legislation.

“The situation is extremely complicated,” said Pierre Esperance, a leading human rights advocate, whose criticism of the verification process got him a threatening letter and bullet in the mail last week.

As the country’s 58th president, Moise faces several challenges, Esperance said.

“The first problem is the parliament. Haiti has taken a huge step back when you look at this parliament. The way it is configured, it will give the president a lot of blockage, even if theoretically, he has a majority,” he said.

Among those who recently won a six-year seat in parliament: Guy Philippe, a Moise ally and former coup leader, who is wanted by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration under a sealed indictment accusing him of cocaine trafficking and money laundering.

A second problem confronting Moise is Haiti’s powerful private sector, which largely supported his campaign. Their demands for a return on their investments could complicate matters more in a deeply divided nation. The third is the country’s weakened institutions and how Moise plans to reinforce them.

“He will need to strengthen the effectiveness of an extremely weak state, curb corruption and rebuild basic institutions,” said Robert Fatton, a Haiti expert at the University of Virginia. “For the past 30 years, every government has promised to address these structural problems and met with failure. A combination of internal political struggles, external interventions and natural disasters has caused this failure.”

Not helping matters is the low voter turnout, estimated at 21 percent by Haiti’s elections body. The number indicates that the majority of Haitians have become disengaged from the governing process, an even bigger challenge for Moise.

“While Jovenel Moise won the elections by a wide margin, it is not clear that he obtained a mandate,” said Fatton. “He will need both unusual luck and exceptional leadership qualities to reconcile a class-divided nation, and build a political consensus on which to begin the long overdue reconstruction of Haiti. Again, his task is nothing short of monumental.”

But the first order of business for Moise, who is expected to be sworn in on Feb. 7, isn’t even economics and finance, longtime Haiti experts say.

“It has to be politics,” said Pharel, the economist. “The social tensions are very high and Jovenel has to talk to the political parties and get them around the table. He has to reduce the political tensions. … He’s got to show that he’s not going to be Michel Martelly, always fighting with words, engaged in political fights, and will create a better environment on the political side.”

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