BY JACQUELINE CHARLES, McClatchy Newspapers
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Elections for a third of the Haitian senate are delayed. Electoral council members are under investigation. And President Rene Preval has set off a firestorm by proposing a reform of the constitution.
After some 18 months of relative political calm, Haiti is in the midst of a blistering and politically charged debate that’s stirring concerns of yet another plunge into political crisis.
At stake is not just the fragile coalition government that Preval has built since taking office in May 2006, but his credibility as he struggles, with the international community looking over his shoulder, to address Haiti’s vexing problems.
“This is a distraction that Haiti can ill afford at this point,” said one foreign diplomat who asked for anonymity because of the polarizing nature of the debate.
The turbulence, slowly building for weeks, came to a head Oct. 17, when Preval told Haiti’s 8.5 million citizens that the 20-year-old constitution is a “source of instability” that requires profound modifications.
His declaration, coupled with a lack of specifics on what parts of the constitution he wants to change, immediately sparked complaints from opponents and even many supporters that constitutional reform should not be a top priority at this time.
Some critics accuse Preval of manufacturing a crisis to divert attention from his government’s lack of progress in addressing Haiti’s grinding poverty, while others say he’s seeking to gain authoritarian�rule.
“I am not interested in becoming president again after 2011,” Preval told the Miami Herald, addressing for the first time speculation that he wants to change the constitution to allow him to seek a third presidential term. “When I leave office on the seventh of February 2011, I would like to leave a country with long-term stability for long-term development.”
But he added that such progress would be difficult under a constitution that bans back-to-back presidential terms, allows parliament to fire the prime minister and requires national elections every two years – largely financed with foreign aid.
“Are we always going to the international community to seek funds, or are we going to change the constitution to say we are going to have one election every five years, every six years?” he said. “I’ve asked the nation to reflect on certain aspects … that I believe make the constitution an element of instability.”
Many Haitians say the very mention of reforms has created instability, as evidenced by the intense political bickering and deep distrust that re-emerged in recent days.
“This is not the climate to have this kind of debate,” said opposition leader Mirlande Manigat, citing the fragility of Haiti’s political and social environment. “The government lacks credibility, and they will lose even more credibility if they continue to pursue this.”
Manigat, an expert on the constitution who even wrote a book a couple of years ago pleading for reforms, said she has not changed her position on the need for changes but that the country now faces more pressing problems.
“What causes political stability in a country? It’s when people see a bunch of problems and they see no solution for them. Dissatisfaction, frustration. That is what exists right now,” Manigat said. “I hope there will not be a social explosion in this country because of … the degree to which misery exists.”
Preval argues the constitution, adopted after the collapse of the 29-year Duvalier family dictatorship, focused too much on checks on power to make sure no new tyranny would arise, is too bureaucratic and expensive to maintain and has never been fully implemented.
“In 20 years, we’ve never had political stability because we were always fighting against the dictator,” Preval said, sitting in the east wing of the presidential palace overlooking the Champ de Mars plaza.
“Today, we are creating a government where there is representation by everyone in the parliament, and this has provided political stability. But this political stability has to continue.”
Preval has been quietly meeting with political and business leaders to discuss the reform effort. But many Haitians distrust him, recalling his first presidential term, 1996-2001, when a dispute over elections led him to effectively close down parliament.
Adding to the turbulence has been Preval’s recent proposals to dissolve the current Provisional Electoral Council, known as CEP, amid allegations of corruption and delays in two critical elections.
Preval says he wants to replace the CEP with a new nine-member board better capable of guaranteeing the neutrality of elections.
Critics say Preval should simply follow the current constitution, which lays out the procedure for creating an electoral council. But that process first requires the election of a group of county government-like officials – a layer of government mandated by the constitution.
Preval supporters say he opposes the new layer because it would add hundreds more to the government’s payroll and 10 new posts to his cabinet.
Also fueling the political tensions is the lack of a date for elections to replace 11 senators, whose terms expire Jan. 14. The elections were due Nov. 25, and Preval has shown little interest in pushing the issue.
The president’s critics say maintaining the constitutionally required schedule for elections, as expensive and frequent as they are, is critical to the rebuilding of democracy here.
“This is not the climate to have this kind of debate. The government lacks credibility, and they will lose even more credibility if they continue to pursue this.”
Mirlande Manigat, opposition leader, citing the fragility of Haiti’s political environment