Haiti’s president knows he has a problem: Governing a country that at times seems to verge on the ungovernable is hard enough when you have a lot of support.
Jovenel Moïse clearly does not.
In a recent interview, the Haitian leader lamented that he has the confidence of only a small sliver of his people.
He won the 2016 elections with just under 600,000 votes in a country of 11 million. And now many are angry over his refusal to leave office in January, amid a dispute over whether his term ended then or should extend for one more year.
Yet Mr. Moïse, 52, has chosen this moment to embark on the biggest shake-up Haiti’s politics has seen in decades, overseeing the drafting of a new Constitution that will restructure government and give the presidency greater powers.
The need for a new Constitution is a rare point of agreement between Mr. Moïse and his many detractors. What concerns some observers is the president’s unilateral approach to writing one. Others just don’t trust him.
Mr. Moïse, critics charge, has become increasingly autocratic and is relying on a small circle of confidants to write a document that, among other changes, will give the president greater power over the armed forces as well as the ability to run for two consecutive terms. It would also grant Haiti’s leader immunity for any actions taken in office.
Mr. Moïse say the broader powers are necessary.
“We need a system that works,” he said in the telephone interview. “The system now doesn’t work. The president cannot work to deliver.”
Haiti won its independence in 1804, after Haitians rose up against colonial France, but it was not until 1990 that it had its first election widely regarded as free and fair. Even then, in a country with a long history of dictatorships and coups, democracy has never fully taken root.
Many Haitians say a new Constitution is needed. The current one has created two competing power centers in the country — the president and prime minister — which often leads to friction and a fractured government.
The draft Constitution would abolish the Senate, leaving in place a single legislative body elected every five years, and replace the post of prime minister with a vice president that answers to the president, in a bid to streamline government.
Haitians will vote on the new Constitution in June, ahead of national elections slated for September.
But some take little reassurance from the ballot casting ahead.
“People need to realize that elections are not inherently equivalent to democracy,” said Jake Johnston, a research associate for the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
Every time there is a political crisis in Haiti, he said, the international community tends to call for elections. That leaves the country limping from one paralyzed government to another, instead of trying to reform the electoral process and work to engage voter participation.
“When an election actually ceases to represent the will of the people, what kind of government do they expect that to produce?” Mr. Johnston asked.
Since 1986, after nearly 30 years of dictatorship, voter turnout has steadily declined in Haiti. Only 18 percent of all eligible Haitians participated in the 2016 election that brought Mr. Moïse to power.
Now, the country’s deep economic and social morass may only encourage more Haitians to stay at home when it is time to vote on the new Constitution and then for a new president.
Unemployment is rampant and desperation is at an all-time high. Many Haitians are unable to step onto the street to run basic errands without worrying about being kidnapped for ransom.
Mr. Moïse says he, too, is concerned about voter participation.
“There is a silent majority,” he said. “Many Haitians don’t want to participate in something they think will be violent. We need peace and stability to encourage people to vote.”
As the June referendum on the Constitution approaches, the government is trying to register five million voters, Mr. Moïse said. His goal, he said, is to inject the process with more legitimacy than his presidency had.
According to the United Nations, there are at least 6.7 million potential voters in Haiti. Others say that number is an undercount, since many Haitians are undocumented, their births never registered with the government.
In an effort to placate critics, and ease concerns that he is positioning himself to benefit from the new Constitution, Mr. Moïse has promised not to run in the next election.
But to fix the country before he steps down, he says, he needs to accumulate enough power to take on an oligarchy he says has paralyzed Haiti to profit off a government too weak to regulate or tax their businesses.
“We are suffering today from state capture — it is the biggest problem we face today,” Mr. Moïse said.
Some view with deep skepticism Mr. Moïse’s claims that he has made an enemy out of big businesses by trying to regulate them. They say the president is simply trying to stoke populist sentiment to deflect from the failures of his own government and sideline political opponents.
Others are willing to be more charitable, but say he has not done enough to build support.
“The problem is that the way that Moïse has gone about it,” said Alexandra Filippova, a senior staff attorney with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti, an organization that provides legal representation for victims of human rights abuses. “He is unilaterally pushing it forward.”
The draft Constitution, for example, released last month, is available only in French — which the vast majority of Haitians do not read — instead of Creole.
And no members of civil society were invited to take part as the document was drafted. Mr. Moïse instead appointed a special commission to do that. That, critics say, dims the chances for real progress.
“Constitutional change is supposed to reflect a social consensus of some sort,” Ms. Filippova said.