Haiti – A new prime minister and the politics of retrenchment of President Jovenel Moïse

Article 156 of the constitution of Haiti stipulates that the prime minister runs the government and is responsible before the parliament, which can at any time decides his fate with a vote of confidence or no-confidence. This constitutional prerogative of the parliament was in full display two months ago when, on July 14th, following an interpellation by the chamber of deputies, the then prime minister, Jack Guy Lafontant, announced his resignation after it was clear that he would be voted out by a majority of legislators from his own party. This was the consequence of violent and deadly demonstrations that had rocked the capital a week before, when angry protesters took to the streets to denounce the decision of the government to increase fuel prices, following a recommendation by the International Monetary Fund.

After the events that took place on that fateful July 7th , a large group of businessmen and legislators from the ruling PHTK party decided that it was the moment to seal the fate of Lafontant. They joined the growing chorus of political opponents that had been asking for the departure of the government. The resignation of the prime minister marked the first moment since the beginning Jovenel Moïse’s young presidency that the opposition had been able to score an important political point. But, this win came when many people had defected from his own party, taking advantage of the weakness of the president in the wake of the violent demonstrations to force his hand to change the primer minister. In this sense, the events that brought down the government are the result of the calculus of different actors who are trying to advance different objectives in the present context.

The preference of the president, Jovenel Moïse, would have been to maintain Jack Guy Lafontant as his prime minister. He made clear on several occasions before the events that finally forced his hand that he wanted no changes. On April 24th when he reluctantly agreed to change 27% of the cabinet, he made it clear over a period of several weeks that he was against the idea. Only after the defection of many legislators from his party did he finally accepted to swear in five new ministers.

The fact that it took the president an entire week to finally come to terms with the idea of the resignation of Lafontant after the riots of July 7th , when political actors both from his party and the opposition had signed off on the Prime Minister, shows that the president was not at all convinced that such a change was necessary.

It took Jovenel Moïse a full month to find a new prime minister. He is Jean Henry Céant, a former presidential candidate. Céant then spent exactly another month forming a new cabinet of 18 ministers, in which 33% (6 out of 18) are left over from the old government. Two months after the last wave of protests, the president was finally able to convince a majority of the legislators of his own party to approve the declaration of politics of the new government. On September 14th and 16th, the Senators and the Chamber of the Deputies approved the Cabinet and, Céant became the 21th Prime Minister since 1988 in Haiti.

But, from what we know of the negotiations between the president and the legislators from his own party, it is clear that the road to the nomination of Céant and the formation of the government was not smooth. Many legislators vented their frustration and criticisms in public when it was clear that they would not have the ability to secure their preferred outcomes. With the next legislative elections scheduled to take place at the end of next year, the majority that voted in favor of the new government has been promised a substantial amount of money for their constituency. In the coming months, if for any reason the government does not maintain its end of the bargain, it is possible that the country will experience another episode of instability in the government.

The opposition parties whose demonstrations in the street finally led to the fall of the Lafontan’s government have not been able to capitalize from the instability they created. Even though the new primer minister, Céant, is from a branch of the opposition, they have not been able to secure any relevant position in the cabinet. All of the Ministers are from the ruling PHTK party or political groups around the President.

With the resignation of Lafontant, many in the opposition asked for a “cohabitation”, where the opposition parties would govern alongside the President. Such a scenario would be their best second outcome, since they have not enough political strength to force out President Jovenel Moïse, as they have been trying to do since his election. But the reality is that the opposition has very little sway in this conjuncture. Its presence in both chambers of parliament is merely testimonial. In fact, recent events are more a product of internal infighting in the PHTK and the miscalculations of Prime Minister Lafontant.

The goal of the opposition in the coming months will be to maintain street demonstrations against the government. During the discussions around the formation of the new government, many cases of corruption in which the name of individuals from the PHTK were cited. The opposition parties seem poised to keep mobilizing around this issue in an attempt to discredit the president. Their ability to maintain pressure around these cases will be vital for their relevance in the near future.

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