PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Top Haitian leaders negotiated an agreement to install a short-term provisional government less than 24 hours before President Michel Martelly was scheduled to step down, an official with the Organization of American States and local authorities announced Saturday.
In an exclusive interview with The Associated Press, special OAS mission leader Ronald Sanders said the interim president will be elected by Parliament for a term of up to 120 days. He said Prime Minister Evans Paul will remain in his position until lawmakers are able to confirm a prime minister by consensus in upcoming days.
The caretaker government will ensure a new Provisional Electoral Council is in place to conclude an election cycle that began last year. The plan calls for a presidential and legislative runoff to be held on April 24, with a newly elected president to be installed on May 14 for a five-year term.
"The country now has an opportunity for a fresh start," Sanders said, adding that Parliament would invite nominations for an interim president soon.
The deal, if it holds, will prevent an institutional vacuum when Martelly leaves office on Sunday and creates a roadmap for an elected leader to replace him in a few months. But there was no break in opposition protests in the crowded capital Saturday and recent violence suggests discord is likely to continue.
"We have to stay vigilant because certain people disagree with this accord," a somber-looking Martelly said in brief comments after an afternoon signing ceremony with legislative leaders at the National Palace. Just outside, a crowd of anti-government protesters threw rocks at riot police and chanted for the president's immediate ouster as they've done repeatedly in recent days.
Sanders said the deal was signed overnight following "very animated" and occasionally heated negotiations on Friday between Martelly, the two leaders of Haiti's bicameral legislature and numerous lawmakers. Sanders, an Antiguan diplomat who is mission leader and chairman of the 35-nation OAS' permanent council, said Martelly remained "cool throughout the process."
Lawmakers are scheduled to meet Sunday morning in a joint session to formally ensure Prime Minister Paul stays on to provide stability as plans for the interim government advance. Martelly is also set to give his final speech to the country from their chambers.
The special OAS mission had been observing negotiations to resolve a standoff over a disputed round of voting in October that led officials to suspend a runoff election that had been scheduled for Jan. 24. Some opposition figures have repeatedly said Martelly could not be part of the process, but Sanders, who stressed he was a witness and not a participant in the talks, said the deal was reached by elected officials who have the authority to do so.
"I don't think that anybody could say that it was a cooked-up agreement because it was done by people who didn't have the right or the authority to do it," Sanders told AP. "Indeed, there are no other two sets of entities in this country that could have signed a legitimate agreement."
Senate President Jocelerme Privert, considered one of the top candidates to be the provisional president, told The AP that a new electoral council will ensure that a special commission's recommendations are in place to make sure the April 24 runoff is fair and transparent.
Haiti's last Provisional Electoral Council repeatedly rejected opposition demands for an independent review of the election results, fueling suspicions of vote-rigging.
Diplomats from the various foreign powers who monitor Haiti gathered at the National Palace to witness the signing ceremony. U.S. Ambassador Peter Mulrean welcomed the accord, saying it offered a "clear path ahead" and Haiti's various political parties have committed to it.
OAS officials held more than 25 meetings since they arrived last Sunday, but never talked with opposition presidential candidate Jude Celestin despite numerous invitations to meet him. Celestin did not immediately return a call for comment. Sanders said the OAS, however, did meet with other members of his opposition alliance.
Celestin was boycotting the scheduled Jan. 24 runoff despite official returns that showed him coming in second and winning a spot in the runoff against Martelly's preferred successor, Jovenel Moise.
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