Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse (centre). Pictures: REUTERS/ANDRES MARTINEZ CASARES
Haiti's President Jovenel Moïse (centre). Pictures: REUTERS/ANDRES MARTINEZ CASARES

Everyone agrees that the Haitian president’s term ends on February 7, but there’s disagreement over which year.

As far as the opposition is concerned, President Jovenel Moïse’s time is up in February, and they’ve protested and clashed with security forces as that day draws near. He says his term runs into 2022, and has no plans to quit before then.

The struggle over term limits comes as the poorest nation in the Americas grapples with 20% inflation, its sharpest economic contraction in a decade and surging gang-violence. In addition, Haiti is still recovering from the deadly 2010 earthquake and Hurricane Matthew in 2016, while chronic political instability has seen it churn through four presidents in a decade.

Moïse maintains that his five-year term began when he was sworn in on February 7 2017, a position supported by the Organization of American States. But the opposition — and some legal scholars — says the clock started ticking in 2016, in the wake of chaotic and disputed elections that led to an interim presidency and a new vote.

To complicate matters, Moïse began ruling by decree in 2020 after legislative elections were shelved and parliamentary terms expired amid a dispute over his hand-picked electoral authority. He’s used that sweeping power to create a new national intelligence service and broadened the definition of “terrorism” to include the blocking of roads — one of the main forms of protest.

US reaction

For months, the US, the EU and the Organization of American States, among others, have urged new legislative elections to restore the balance of power. Instead, Moïse is proposing a referendum in April to modify the constitution, followed by legislative and presidential elections in September and a run-off in November. That would essentially leave him governing by decree into 2022.

Haiti’s opposition fears the constitutional referendum is another power grab — an attempt by Moïse to cling to his office, as the current constitution bars consecutive presidential terms.

The government has provided few details about the new constitution, but Moïse has repeatedly said he wants to make the country more governable. At a January 1 event marking Haiti’s independence, he said the nation’s institutions had been hijacked by “corrupt oligarchs” who have created “a predatory state that works only for their own petty interests”.

The presidency didn’t reply to an e-mail seeking additional comment.

While the Donald Trump administration pushed for new elections it also maintained cordial relations with Moïse, one of the Caribbean’s most vocal backers of the US campaign against the Venezuelan government.

That dynamic may be changing.

In December, a group of Democrat legislators including Gregory Meeks, the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, accused Moïse of “pursuing an increasingly authoritarian course of action” and said it would work with the Joe Biden administration to support “a credible, Haitian-led transition back to democratic order”.

Chaotic country

Haiti’s constitution is ambiguous when it comes to the exact start-date of Moïse’s five-year term, said Nicole Phillips, the legal director of the Haitian Bridge Alliance, a coalition of non-profit organisations. That means the political struggle is playing out on the streets.

Moïse’s “failure to hold any kind of election, his consolidation of power in the executive branch and his acting as a quasi-dictator, those are facts that are propelling legitimate opposition arguments that he needs to step down,” she said.


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