Haiti lawmakers elect Jocelerme Privert as interim president

Port-au-Prince (AFP) - Haitian lawmakers early Sunday elected Jocelerme Privert as the troubled country's interim president to fill a power vacuum following the departure of Michel Martelly, after a vote to choose his successor was postponed over fears of violence.

Privert, 62, a senator and president of the National Assembly, was chosen on the second round of balloting after a lengthy session that stretched overnight Saturday to Sunday.

The lawmakers chose Privert over two other candidates, Dejan Belizaire and Edgar Leblanc Fils, both former presidents of Haiti's senate. Belizaire was quickly eliminated after receiving just two votes.

Martelly ended his five-year term without a successor on February 7.

Under an agreement signed hours before his departure, the interim president chosen by parliament would serve for up to 120 days, a new election would be held on April 24, and the new president would be installed on May 14.

After taking the oath, Privert announced that he would form a "consensus government capable of inspiring confidence, and able to create peace for the continuation of the electoral process."

This is the first time since 1946 that a Haitian chief of state is chosen by indirect vote.

- 'Not impartial' -

The immediate roots of the crisis can be traced to October, when Martelly's favored candidate, Jovenel Moise, won the first round of presidential voting 33 percent to 25 percent over runner-up Jude Celestin.

The opposition politician, however, denounced the results as a "ridiculous farce."

A scheduled January 24 runoff between Moise and Celestin was canceled when Celestin refused to participate unless widespread electoral reforms were enacted, and following violence and protests alleging that Moise won the first round through dirty tricks and with government support.

The plan to elect an interim president by indirect vote angered opponents. Some lawmakers even questioned the legitimacy of Privert's candidacy.

"Stop the parliamentary coup d'etat," lawmaker Gary Bodeau said. "Parliament cannot be judge and jury ... the process is not impartial."

Privert comes to the job with experience as a bureaucrat and as a politician.

For some 30 years Privert worked in the country's tax office until he left in 2002 to be interior minister under then president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. That stint did not last long, as Aristide was ousted amid widespread chaos and unrest in February 2004.

Privert was arrested soon after for his alleged role in the deadly violence that broke out during Aristide's final days in office. He was linked to an incident that, according to Haitian rights groups, resulted in scores of people killed and some 60 homes set ablaze in an opposition stronghold.

The former minister spent 26 months in prison and was released without a trial in June 2006 after carrying out a hunger strike.

Privert returned to politics in 2010, when he was elected senator, rising eventually to the chamber's top position.

- A new Electoral Council -

The upcoming round of voting to elect the next president is likely to be a rocky process.

The body in charge of organizing the vote, the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), needs fresh blood as six of its nine members have resigned.

Choosing new CEP members is always a difficult task, with charges of bias and favoritism often leveled by the opposition.

Money is also an issue: the election process has already cost $1 billion, most of it financed by the international community.

The political turmoil is the latest challenge for the Caribbean country that is the poorest in the Americas.

Thirty years after the end of the Duvalier dictatorship, Haiti is still struggling to hold credible elections that would boost development and raise the standard of living for the 60 percent of the population living below the poverty line.

Also, Haiti is still dealing with the aftermath of the powerful January 2010 earthquake that killed some 160,000 people and caused widespread destruction.