(CNN)Turmoil in Haiti could soon test democratic leaders’ support for embattled president Jovenel Moise, a former banana exporter whose claim to another year in office has sparked protests in the capital, arrests and the abrupt dismissal of several Supreme Court judges.
Hundreds of protesters took to the streets in Port-au-Prince this week, with plumes of black smoke from burning tires and flags seen in the capital city, as well as white clouds of tear gas. At least two journalists were injured, a witness told CNN.
“I heard people saying I’m a dictator, but I want to be clear; I have a mandate for five years and I will finish my term,” Moise said in a televised speech on Sunday.
The United Nations, the Organization of American States, and the Biden Administration support his plan to remain in office until 2022 — but Moise’s attempts to end the debate domestically have taken an undemocratic cast that has his backers worried. On Monday, Moise ordered the retirement of three of 10 Supreme Court judges, raising the question of what institutional guardrails now remain on the presidency.
Moise has ruled by decree since letting the parliament’s mandate expire in January 2020. “Jovenel Moise destroyed every institution, from the parliament to local government. It is clear what he wanted to do. Unfortunately, we have an international community who don’t support the fight against this corrupt dictator,” opposition leader and former senator Nenel Cassy told CNN.
Moise’s office declined to comment directly for this story, instead referring questions to Haiti’s ambassador to the US.
Haiti’s opposition has called for a three day “general uprising” this weekend. It will be the latest in a succession of anti-government demonstrations that have marked Moise’s term, fueled by anger over Haiti’s foundering economy, a sweeping corruption scandal and surging criminal violence.
A president accused of dismantling democracy
Haiti’s democratic institutions have been crippled under Moise, who has not organized parliamentary or local elections, leaving the legislative branch of government largely vacant and powerless. His new order for judges from Haiti’s highest court to retire now deals a blow to the country’s judicial branch.
In an interview with Voice of America, Moise accused all three of designs on the presidency, and said his order was intended to keep the Court from getting involved in politics. “As a guarantor of the institutions, we cannot allow an institution such as the Supreme Court to stray from its mission,” he said.
“President Moise did not remove the judges. He only asked them to exercise their right to retire,” Haiti’s Ambassador to the US, Bocchit Edmond, told CNN.
But Judge Jean Wilner Morin, President of the National Association of Haitian Judges, explains CNN that the President has no constitutional authority to unilaterally retire a judge, or appoint a new one.
“One cannot remove a judge in the course of his term. It is impossible. Therefore the decision to remove three judges from the Supreme Court by the President of the Republic, the order given by the president, is an illegal and unconstitutional order.”
Without a functioning legislature, though, who is left to challenge the move?
The US said it is monitoring developments. “We are deeply concerned about any actions that risk damaging Haiti’s democratic institutions. The Executive Order is now being widely scrutinized to determine whether it conforms to Haiti’s Constitution and laws,” the US Mission to Haiti said in a statement.
In the coming year, critics fear that yet another blow to Haiti’s democracy could take the form of changes to the constitution, which Moise sees as his legacy project. The new constitution, aimed to further empower the presidency, will go to a referendum in April — and only afterward will elections to fill parliamentary, mayoral and other posts follow.
“The new constitution will guarantee when a president is elected they can do the job they were elected to do,” Moïse said in his Sunday speech.
Backed by foreign support
Haiti’s political opposition say that that Moise completed his constitutionally mandated five-year term on Sunday and is now illegally occupying his office. But the President argues that he deserves more time because although he was elected in 2016, he was only sworn in 2017.
A Constitutional Court could issue a definitive ruling on this. The problem, as Morin points out, is that such a court only exists in theory.
“Haiti’s 1987 constitution provides for this constitutional court — but it has never actually been created and that’s why today we find ourselves in a situation where the president says his term ends in 2022 and the political opposition says it ends in 2021,” he says.
“If (Moise) wants to stay in power, he must find a political consensus with other political actors and civil society,” he added.
In the court’s absence, Haiti’s national bar association and its Superior Council of Judiciary Power (CSPJ) — a powerful body that appoints, fires, and disciplines judges — have sided with the opposition, in calling for Moise to step down.
But the current government dismisses domestic criticism, pointing instead to its foreign support. “That’s the issue in Haiti. … Everybody thinks they can do everything, but do not listen to the Bar Association of Lawyers,” said Edmond.
Last week, US State Department spokesman Ned Price echoed Moise when he told reporters that “a new elected president should succeed President Moise when his term ends … on February 7, 2022″ — though in tacit acknowledgement of the country’s hamstrung democracy, he also urged Moise to let voters pick a parliament and to “exercise restraint in issuing decrees.”
Such support is key to Moise’s continuation in office, said Nicole Phillips, a law professor at the University of California, Hastings and Université de la Foundation Dr. Aristide (UNIFA) in Port-au-Prince.
She describes US endorsement of the president’s stance, despite his erosion of democratic norms, as a short-sighted campaign to keep Haiti in stasis in the immediate term “as opposed to figuring out policies in the long term that will actually sustain democracy and justice in Haiti.”
“The international bodies are not following Haitian constitutional experts and legal bodies in their interpretation,” she said. “You have Haitian constitutional scholars as well as the CSPJ and the federal bar association who are making their interpretations and the international community doesn’t care.”
Some US lawmakers have called on the US State Department in an open letter to “condemn President Moise’s undemocratic actions, and support the establishment of a transitional government.”
Without support from Haiti’s powerful neighbor, efforts to form any transitional government will hold little clout while Moise retains control of the country’s police and military.
Edmond, the ambassador, argues there would be nothing democratic about appointing a transitional government, and urges observers at home and abroad to wait for the next general elections to select a new president to take office in 2022.
“Transitional governments have never been useful to Haiti,” he said. “It’s really important to strengthen the democratic process, and to make sure that a democratically elected president is replaced by another democratically elected one.”
But with an emboldened president, no functioning legislature and only a partial Supreme Court, the question is whether Haiti’s shaky democracy can make it until then.