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Haitian President Presents Constitutional Reform Proposals. Is He Gaming Re-Election?

Rebecca Blackwell
A Haitian holds up a copy of the country's 1987 Constitution, which President Jovenel Moise hopes to reform in an April referendum.

Unpopular Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has set a constitutional reform referendum for April. Critics say he's also fixed it to keep himself in power.

Haitian President Jovenel Moïse has been ruling by decree for a year now after refusing to hold legislative elections — an authoritarian posture that has made him the object of some of the country's worst political unrest in years.

As a result, most Haitians are justifiably wary of Moïse's plan to hold a referendum on constitutional reforms in April. This week Moïse presented his proposed changes – and they didn’t make Haitians any less wary, especially since many question whether the reform plebiscite he's called is itself constitutional.

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Critics say the most prominent concern is whether Moïse is trying to fix things so he can run for a second consecutive term — which is prohibited under the current 1987 Constitution. It says persons may hold the presidency for two terms, but they may not be consecutive terms, and a president must wait five years after their first term before running for another.

That provision was a democratic safeguard response to the repression of the decades-long Duvalier dictatorship that ended in 1986.

But Moïse's reform draft seems to allow Haitian presidents re-election for consecutive terms. That could allow Moïse himself to run again next fall — and so, it's a significant red flag given the country's history of despotic rule.

Moïse would replace Haiti’s prime minister with a vice president — a change meant to strengthen the country’s presidency, which many agree is needed to make the government more effective. But Moïse would scrap Haiti's Senate and Chamber of Deputies for a single-chamber Congress — a move that in other countries, such as Venezuela, has often been bad news for democracy.

The reforms would also let members of the Haitian diaspora run for president and other high-level offices. Under the current Constitution a person has to live in Haiti for five consecutive years to do that.

Haitians are supposed to debate the proposed reforms in public meetings this month before the scheduled April 25 plebiscite — which Moïse is making sure takes place before the new presidential and legislative elections he's finally pledged to hold in September.