Haitian leaders look for way out of political impasse

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Haitian President Michel Martelly would step down on schedule in two weeks, an interim government would take over and a runoff vote would be held within months.

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These are the contours of a potential solution to Haiti's political crisis that was beginning to emerge Monday, according to officials taking part in the discussions. The crisis follows the indefinite postponement of elections, which has generated fears of backsliding into instability.

Haitian political leaders and others with influence have been meeting behind closed doors to discuss a way out of the impasse. There were no official announcements, but officials said they were working toward a mediated solution following a surge of violent protests and a looming constitutional crisis.

"We know we have to work fast because we have a very short time to resolve this crisis," said Senate President Jocelerme Privert, an opposition lawmaker who is a central figure in the talks. "If Haiti needs anything it is political stability."

Haiti had been scheduled to hold the runoff vote Sunday. But on Friday, the electoral council cancelled it, for a second time, amid protests and suspicion that the first round was marred by massive fraud favouring Martelly's chosen candidate, Jovenel Moise.

The second-place presidential candidate, Jude Celestin, rejected the first-round results as a "farce" and alleged vote-rigging by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council. Martelly, who cannot run for a second consecutive term, is required under the Constitution to leave office by Feb. 7.

For now, a number of proposals are being discussed in negotiations being held in Haiti's National Palace and elsewhere. Privert said that Martelly has told him in several recent meetings that that he would step down on schedule early next month.

The Senate president cautioned that negotiations were far from settled. But he said consensus could be building for a plan that calls for an interim government to take power on Feb. 7. New elections would be held as soon as possible so a newly elected leader could take office, perhaps this spring.

Others with knowledge of the discussions agreed with his description of the current proposals. One Martelly ally with knowledge of the talks said the president wants the interim government to hold power for the minimum time necessary, just long enough to organize a new election. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to publicly discuss the negotiations.

There's growing concern in some quarters that an inability to forge a deal might roll back a decade of relative political stability and scare off foreign investment in the hemisphere's poorest nation.

"This situation is very worrying because reaching consensus is not going to be easy, knowing Haiti's political actors," said Rosny Desroches, a member of a special electoral commission that had unsuccessfully pushed for a political dialogue to ease electoral tensions.

While Martelly meets with legislative leaders, the "Group of Eight" opposition alliance, led by Celestin, asserts that Haiti's new Parliament was installed illegally and can't provide solutions.

Political compromise is a rare thing in Haiti, where elections and power transitions are often accompanied by violence and disorder. In a report on Haiti last year, the World Bank said many observers agree that "Haitians perceive political and economic disputes as a zero sum game with only winners and losers, each with very long memories."

Oposition-stoked protests have steadily ramped up the tension in Haiti's capital with window-smashing and burning street barricades. Outside the capital, schools serving as election offices were targeted by arsonists before weekend elections were called off.

Some opposition militants and pro-government figures are fanning the flames. Senate candidate Guy Phillippe, an ex-paramilitary who helped lead an uprising against then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004 and campaigned with ruling party presidential Moise this election cycle, called on supporters in his remote enclave in southwestern Haiti to "defend" against opposition "anarchists."

Before the elections were postponed last week, anti-government demonstrators marched through Port-au-Prince chanting: "If they give us Jovenel, we'd rather die."

"There are political players who don't care if they break the country to gain power," said businessman Christopher Handal, who has participated in recent negotiations as president of Haiti's Chamber of Commerce.

While Haiti has a number of loud partisans, most Haitians have no interest in stirring up political conflict and don't vote.

The Senate president and other officials vowed Monday that authorities were working hard to forge a deal.

"I believe in the future of my country. I believe in my colleagues. And I have faith that the citizens of my country will not allow Haiti to fall into chaos," Privert said before departing for his next round of negotiations.



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