Since his inauguration, 8 months ago, as the constitutional President of Haiti, Jovenel Moise has had a relatively peaceful honeymoon period. The natural sense of wait-and-see that comes with a new administration and the additional “help” of tropical storms and hurricanes contributed to some months of political calm. But, since the beginning of July an apparently harmless string of protests for an increase in the minimum wage has led to many actors taking off the gloves. Now daily protests including some very violent ones have become routine in the streets in Port-au-Prince.
Jovenel Moise began his mandate as a very active president. Fulfilling the campaign pledge to act primarily in the interests of the peasants, he proposed initiatives such as the electrification of localities in the countryside or and the boosting of farm production. These actions have contributed to a relatively well regarded president in the provinces, but with less to show to the residents of the cities. With frequent visits to and many projects in rural areas, Jovenel has converted himself into an omnipresent President. In the process, he has entirely eclipsed his Primer Minister and the government. Litle is known about the government and, if it was not for some corruption scandals that have been revealed by the press, many ministers would have gone unnoticed. With full control over parliament (the president’s party controls both chambers) the president operates as the de facto head of the government, negotiating directly with the legislators.
The reality of a president who operates without any check from the legislative branch is playing for now at least in his favor. For the first time since 1986, a president was able to obtain the ratification of his first choice as Prime Minister. Also, for the first time in many years, he was able to present a budget and have it approved on time. But, in an unstable political context as is usually the case in Haiti, this situation can be harmful in the long run for Jovenel Moise. If the opposition succeeds in convincing the public that the government is ineffective, then since the president is seen as the main actor of the government, the departure of the Prime Minister will not be perceived as a genuine solution to the problem. The practice of using the Prime Minister as a scapegoat to deflect political pressure from the president will be less likely.
With the violent protests that have been under way lately, the opposition has begun to test the popularity of the government. Unsurprisingly, the movement began in Port-au-Prince, in the slum cities where the president is less active. The pretext was the publication by the president of the budget for the next fiscal year. The protesters argue that the spending plans do not tackle the social conditions of the country and that they do not allocate enough resources to important areas as health care, education and judicial system. In this context, parliament also approved a scandalous increase in its allocation, a 74% increase compared to the previous fiscal exercise (102% for deputies and, the senate 55%).
There is no doubt that the budget does not address the many difficulties that the country is facing. But, it also evident that the protests can’t be explain solely by the shortcomings of the budget. The protests should be read as the new opening of the political drama. After last year’s elections that Jovenel and his PHTK won without appeal, the opposition needed desperately an opportunity to become relevant. The budget gives them that opportunity. How the situation evolves will depend on the capacity of the government to deactivate the mobilization of other sectors that are hoping to extract some concessions from the government and on the ability of the opposition to convince others of the inefficacy of the government.