By Jacqueline Charles
As a paralyzing political crisis pushed Haiti into an uncertain phase a year ago this month, a stoic President Michel Martelly assured the Haitian people and the international community that he had no interest in governing without the checks and balances of a parliament.
“The only decree that I would take is one to organize elections,” Martelly said on the fifth anniversary of the devastating Jan. 12, 2010, earthquake as the terms of the entire lower house and a second tier of the 30-member Senate expired because of overdue legislative elections.
Now as Haiti prepares to mark another quake anniversary, it is also preparing to welcome back a functioning Senate and lower house after 14 new Senators and 92 Deputies were elected in the much-criticized Aug. 9 and Oct. 25 elections.
While in theory Martelly’s one-man rule should be curbed, observers and critics say much will depend on the configuration of each of the chambers where no one political party enjoys a majority.
“The question is will the elected parliamentarians take their responsibility and pass laws, ratify accords and people who were put in posts, and put in place institutions that they are supposed to?” said Jocelerme Privert, one of only 10 senators left when parliament dissolved, who is today running to head the Senate. “The fact that parliament was dysfunctional created a void that allowed the executive and the government to take actions outside of the constitution.”
“The constitution doesn’t give the president the power to take decrees. Every decree President Martelly has taken is illegal,” he added.
As promised, Martelly did issue an executive order on elections. But he also issued seven other law-binding orders including a controversial boundary change that triggered weeks of violent protests and street blockades north of the capital, where his beach house and other ritzy private beachfront homes are located.
In addition to the decrees, he also made more than 60 administrative orders. Some were in his powers as president, such as declaring national holidays for the celebration of carnival, while other controversial ones took care of family and friends, or named ambassadors, without the required parliament vetting.
One order, published in the Sept. 11, 2015, monitor, gave incorporation status to AGRITRANS, a company owned by his handpicked presidential successor, Jovenel Moïse.
Sen. Youri Latortue, a supporter of Martelly who is also vying to head the Senate, said while it is always better to have a parliament in place, the situation in the past 12 months “was special.”
“What’s important is that he didn’t publish all of the decrees he had,” Latortue said. “We were in this situation because we don’t respect dates, the electoral calendar. President Martelly was in a situation that any president could find himself in. What I hope is that with the entering of the 50th Legislature we put in place a Permanent Electoral Council, a constitutional court to ensure that we respect all dates and we don’t have these voids so no president will have to take any decrees.”
On Sunday, 92 Deputies took the oath of office and received their red and blue sashes. A vote for the new president of the Lower Chamber didn’t happen. On Monday, senators are expected to also take office. And while the new legislature should ensure the renewal of Haiti’s democratic institutions and consolidate political stability, the country remains in a crisis triggered by the Oct. 25 presidential elections.
Last week, after Martelly published a presidential order fixing Jan. 24 for the presidential runoff, opposition candidate Jude Célestin, who qualified, said he will not participate if the vote is held that day. Célestin has asked for the recommendations of an elections evaluation commission assessing fraud allegations to be adopted, as well as his own conditions to participate.
Célestin’s refusal to participate raises questions about whether Haiti will proceed with an election with one candidate or be governed by a transition government when Martelly’s five-year presidential term ends Feb. 7.
Some in Haiti have opposed the opening of the legislative year, citing that legally it cannot take place the entire electoral process is over. Some seats in both chanbers still have yet to be decided.
How the political drama unfolds could well depend on parliament.
“The extension of his term is not to be discarded,” said Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince-based political analyst, referring to a push in some quarters to have Martelly remain until May 14 — the anniversary of the date of when he took office — to avoid a transition government running the country and allowing the electoral process to be completed.
Gaillard said Martelly took advantage of the political vacuum and an absence of checks and balances to advance his own interests. He did not, however, turn out to be the dictator many feared.
“Martelly is not a dictator in the pure sense of the term. He did not obtain power by force, nor did he exercise absolute power,” Gaillard said. “On the other hand, he did exercise close to absolute authority, thanks to the immaturity and irresponsibility of the previous parliament who chose political suicide and sudden death over negotiations with a kamikaze president.”
Opposition leader Mirlande Manigat, who lost to Martelly in the 2011 presidential runoff, agreed that one cannot compare Martelly to the Duvaliers who ruled Haiti with an iron-fist for nearly 30 years. But he did make some questionable decisions, Manigat said.
“He tried to create a new municipality and he had no right. Furthermore, contrary to the constitutional provisions that require the intervention of Parliament, he formed and installed the Boards of Directors of the [Republic Bank of Haiti] and [the National Bank of Credit]; he renamed the police chief,” she said. “These initiatives and others violate the constitution and should be added to other behaviors, a style of government that lacks respect for its collaborators, and the non-controlled use of public funds. … Overall, it bears responsibility for the current crisis of him not organizing elections during his mandate.”
An analysis of the government’s official gazette showed that delayed local elections led to Martelly naming more than four dozen individuals to municipal posts between July and August of 2015.
Ideally, parliament could cancel many of the decisions taken by the president in its absence. But Manigat and Gaillard aren’t betting on it.
Pierre Esperance, a leading human rights advocate, said that while Martelly didn’t take decisions that restrained public liberties or associations, he didn’t use his powers to strengthen institutions or the rule of law. Rather, the opposite happened — they weakened.
“With the absence of parliament there were a lot of problems that the Martelly administration was preoccupied with; a gas strike, strikes against rising costs of living, the electoral process being badly organized,” he said. “Perhaps if he had other intentions he didn’t have the opportunity to do them.”
Meanwhile, with both chambers scheduled to vote their leaders in — and possibly a new prime minister and government in the coming days — Martelly has been personally lobbying to get his supporters to back his choice for president of the Senate, and the lower chamber.
By succeeding, Martelly would still maintain his hold even after he leaves power. And with talk last week of the government discussing the publication of 42 executive orders, including one to give everyone their clean financial bill of health papers known as a discharge, Privert said he fears more executive orders could show up in the official gazette — backdated.
“If parliament took office on sounder foundations than those who are preparing to enter [Monday], they would have the constitutional authority and morale to cancel certain decisions,” Manigat said.