Martelly in tussle with parliament

Port-au-Prince – Two months after taking office with a promise to “wake up” Haiti, President Michel Martelly is battling to install a new government and the urgent task of rebuilding from last year’s earthquake is on hold.

Lawmakers have opposed his choices for prime minister in an early run-in with Haiti’s messy political reality for the shaven-headed former pop star and novice president elected in March. He has promised to rebrand his nation from a development basket case into a Caribbean success story.

Diplomats and donors say the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state desperately needs a new administration in place to advance recovery from the 2010 quake that killed tens of thousands and wrecked much of the capital Port-au-Prince.

“As long as there is not agreement on the prime minister we are completely stuck,” said Roland Van Hauwermeirin, country director in Haiti for international humanitarian agency Oxfam.

Oxfam says Haiti’s leaders urgently need to relocate more than 600 000 quake survivors still living under tents and tarpaulins. This requires swift decisions to resolve land tenure obstacles and approve resettlement housing projects.

Other pressing tasks to be dealt with are a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 5 500 people since October and the threat of life-threatening winds, floods and landslides as the annual hurricane season moves toward its active phase.

A parliament dominated by supporters of the country’s previous president last month rejected Martelly’s first pick for premier. Lawmakers are also opposing his second selection – Bernard Gousse, a former justice minister.

Gousse, accused by critics of once leading a crackdown against backers of ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was to present his credentials to the Senate for review on Thursday.

But 16 members of the 30-seat Senate have already signed a public statement saying they oppose Gousse as prime minister. Martelly said if Gousse was not accepted as premier, putting a new government in place could take six months.

“We have the hurricane season and the cholera epidemic to deal with. I need to deliver the promises I made to the population,” Martelly said this week after cutting short a visit to Europe to tackle the institutional impasse.

Huge expectations surrounded Martelly’s March 20 election after his tough-talking populist campaign promises to improve life for Haitians won over voters weary with Haiti’s crushing widespread poverty and bickering, self-enriching politicians.

His whirlwind campaign was heavily driven by his popularity as a successful star of Haiti’s catchy Konpa carnival music.

“Now that Martelly is on the inside, he’s starting to see how difficult it really is to govern Haiti,” Robert Maguire, professor of international affairs at the Elliott School of George Washington University in Washington, told Reuters. “When you’re the ‘president of Konpa’ that’s one thing, when you’re president of the country, that’s a different thing.”

“If this starts to tumble down into demonstrations in the street… then we’re in a big heap of trouble,” Maguire said.

The concern about the political deadlock appears to be shared by major donors such as the United States, which invested considerable funds and active diplomacy into steering through the often chaotic Haitian elections which were roiled by serious fraud charges.

“To decide on future projects, we need a counterpart, a Haitian government that we don’t have now… We are impatient to work in co-operation with a new government,” US Ambassador Kenneth Merten said this week.

There were some signs that Martelly might be able to shift the blame for the government paralysis onto parliament, presenting lawmakers as selfish spoilers seeking to preserve their political power when the country needed action.

When Martelly strolled back on foot to his palace after visiting parliament on Wednesday, supporters chanted criticism of lawmakers and shouted: “We need a government now.”

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