President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has repeatedly vowed to hold elections and leave office by Feb. 7 as Haiti’s constitution requires, kept the door open Friday to extending his mandate for three more years.
Aristide, speaking to a conference on national reconciliation in the Presidential Palace, was drowned out by a chorus of cheers, as delegates stood on their chairs, clapped their hands, stomped their feet and demanded that presidential elections scheduled for Dec. 17 be canceled. The crowd held three fingers of each hand in the air and chanted “Three years, three years” and “Aristide or death.”
Aristide, Haiti’s first popularly elected president, took office for a five-year term on Feb. 7, 1991, after winning a landslide election victory. He was ousted in a bloody military coup seven months later. A U.S.-led occupation of the impoverished nation 14 months ago restored Aristide to office with the understanding that he would serve only through the constitutional end of his term.
But pressure has been building among Aristide’s large popular following for him to stay on and make up for the three years that he spent in exile. Before returning, he pledged to President Clinton and other heads of state that he would adhere to the 1987 constitution, which was written during Haiti’s transition to democracy. It precludes a second consecutive presidential term.
Aristide repeatedly has reiterated that promise, in public, to the press and to visiting foreign envoys - most recently to national security adviser Anthony Lake, who met with Aristide for three hours on Thursday.
But Friday, Aristide stood with his hands folded, with a smile seldom leaving his face, as the delegates rose in a chaotic jumble to demand that he not step aside. After 90 minutes, he appeared close to relenting. “If you want three (more) years, I will walk with you,” said Aristide, to a roar of approval. “I think what you think.”
But Aristide also said the idea was divisive and that it would be good for the 14 declared presidential candidates to discuss the idea on national television. His handpicked candidate, Rene Preval, is widely predicted to win the elections, if they go forward, because he has Aristide’s endorsement. Aristide did not mention Preval today.
“My role is to listen to both sides to find a bridge. My mission is fragile,” Aristide told the delegates, who had overwhelmingly passed a resolution demanding that the president stay. Today’s is the most recent and most public demonstration calling on Aristide to remain in office.