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Haitian Parliament Grinds to Halt as Terms Expire for Most Legislators - 2004-01-12


Parliamentary activity came to a halt in Haiti on Monday, as most legislators' terms expired without agreement on when to hold new elections. Most political action has moved to Haiti's streets, as government supporters and opponents continue to hold noisy and sometimes violent demonstrations, which have paralyzed life in the capital over the past few weeks.

Haiti's parliament building stood vacant on Monday, as terms expired on four senators and all 83 members of the Chamber of Deputies.

Earlier, eight senators had resigned, leaving just 15 in the upper house. Haiti's Senate has 27 members who serve for six years. The 83 members of the Chamber of Deputies serve for four years. Haiti's Senate can function with a 14-member quorum, but with no Lower House in session, parliamentary activity and lawmaking in the impoverished Caribbean nation have effectively ground to a halt.

Opposition lawmakers and the government have been deadlocked for more than three years, and opposition lawmakers had refused to participate in new legislative elections, unless Haiti's president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, resigns.

Opposition lawmakers and a growing coalition of students, business leaders and journalists say Mr. Aristide should step down because he has done nothing to alleviate poverty and is allowing members of his government to harass and intimidate government opponents, charges Mr. Aristide and his supporters deny.

The dispute arises from legislative elections in May of 2000, which international observers characterized as deeply flawed. President Aristide, who was elected to a second term in November 2000, says he has no plans to leave office before his term expires in 2006.

Before he left for the special Summit of the Americas in Mexico early Monday, Haiti's president appealed for calm, following several days of violent demonstrations that have left several people dead. Over the past few months, nearly 50 people have died in violence between supporters and opponents of Haiti's president.

Kesner Pharel, an economist who heads the forecasting firm, Group Croissance, says the fact that Haiti's parliament is now effectively closed for business will probably lead to more polarization. Haitians, he said, rarely compromise on politics. "If you are fighting with someone, you can find ways to share things, instead of having all. We have to change this mentality of the winner takes all. Let us look for some win-win situations. But, it is a cultural thing, a cultural war. In Haiti, we have a winner takes all mentality. That is what we have," he said.

The growing violence and instability in Haiti is causing concerns among Haiti's neighbors. Last week U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was very disturbed by the situation in Haiti, and said he urged both Mr. Aristide and the opposition to examine seriously a proposal by Haiti's Catholic bishops to mediate the crisis. Mr. Powell says the Haitian crisis will be discussed at the highest levels at this week's summit in Mexico.

U.S. officials have criticized the growing violence directed against government opponents, saying Haiti's police have, in some cases, collaborated with government-sponsored gangs, who have attacked and sometimes killed government opponents.

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