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Haiti opens debate on proposed constitutional changes

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti has unveiled multiple proposed changes to overhaul the country’s Constitution that officials plan to present to voters starting this week for an upcoming referendum that looms amid growing unrest.

The public meetings are scheduled to be held across Haiti for the next three weeks, ahead of the April 25 constitutional referendum, which would be the first one held in more than 30 years.

One of the biggest changes is an omission in the draft issued by an independent commission tasked with creating the constitutional changes that have generated heated debates. Haiti’s current Constitution bars presidents from serving two consecutive terms, but the draft only states that a president cannot serve for more than two terms; it says nothing about whether they can be served consecutively.

Human rights attorney Bill O’Neill told The Associated Press that his interpretation is that the omission would allow a president to serve two terms consecutively. He noted that those who drafted the 1987 Constitution currently in use were emerging from a 29-year dictatorship under two so-called “presidents for life”: François Duvalier and Jean-Claude Duvalier.

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“The drafters were very wary of allowing anyone having too much unbroken time in the Presidency,” he said.

The new draft also drops the requirement that to be president of Haiti, one needs to have lived in the country for five consecutive years prior to the date of general elections. All it says is that one “must have habitual residence in Haiti,” a change that could allow the diaspora to run for the highest offices in Haiti, which is currently banned. The proposed change also would apply to the position of vice president.

Other proposed changes include creating the position of a vice president to replace that of prime minister and establishing a unicameral legislature to be elected every five years to replace the current Senate and Chamber of Deputies, which was largely dissolved more than a year ago when President Jovenel Moïse began to rule by decree following a lack of legislative elections.

Another change also calls for legislators to be elected every five years to match the presidential term since some senators are currently elected every two to six years.

“This requires elections every 18 months on average,” states the document issued by the independent commission. “The difficulty of respecting this binding electoral agenda plunges the country into a chronic institutional crisis.”

Critics of the proposed changes say they see it as a power grab by Moïse, who says he will step down in February 2022 when his five-year term ends. The opposition, however, argues that his term began when that of former President Michel Martelly ended in February 2016, even though Moïse wasn’t sworn in until February 2017 following a chaotic election process that led to the appointment of a provisional president for one year.

Alfredo Antoine, a former legislator, said the changes are simply a proposal at this point and that people have the right to study them. He also said opposition leaders should seek to create a dialogue with Moïse instead of organizing protests as they insist he leave office by Sunday.

“They should not put oil on the fire,” he said.

Opposition leaders could not be immediately reached for comment.

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As officials meet with certain sectors of society to discuss the proposed constitutional changes, some are demanding more inclusion. Ulrich Louisma, a 40-year-old air conditioning repairman, said people and officials other than the president should provide input on a potentially new Constitution.

“It can’t be a one-man show,” he said.