Haiti banana businessman, who has never held political office, now president

Haitian businessman Jovenel Moise addresses the audience after being declared the official winner of the November 2016 presidential elections, in Port-au-Prince on Jan 3, 2017.

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) - Mr Jovenel Moise, a Haitian banana exporter who has never held political office, has survived the country's long-running electoral nightmare to become its next president.

Mr Moise's victory in the Nov 20 election, made official on Tuesday (Jan 3) by the Provisional Electoral Council, puts the centre-right Tet Kale Party (PHTK) candidate at the helm of the impoverished Caribbean nation starting next month.

His election brings to an end a political crisis that began in October 2015, when Mr Moise won a first round of voting but the results were annulled because of massive fraud.

He had been handpicked by former president Michel Martelly in 2015 as the PHTK candidate to succeed him.

In February 2016, with Mr Martelly's five-year term nearing its end and his political succession in limbo, Haiti's parliament elected Mr Jocelerme Privert, president of the Senate at the time, to be interim president.

Virtually unknown to the Haitian public two years ago, Mr Moise, who takes office on Feb 7, owes much of his voter support to an active social media campaign, a tool still little-exploited by the country's mainstream parties.

It was managed by the Spanish political strategy company OstosSola, which in 2010 massaged Mr Martelly's image from that of "Sweet Micky," his stage name as a celebrity musician known for sexy songs, to that of a serious politician striving to lift the ailing country.

For Mr Moise, an agriculture entrepreneur in the banana trade, the company chose the nickname "Neg Bannan nan," or "banana man" in Haitian Creole, a nickname he loved to chant on the campaign trail.

A former auto parts executive, Mr Moise founded the company Agritrans in 2012, which in cooperation with the Martelly government launched the country's first agriculture free-trade zone, in the North-East department where he was born.

It was the biggest project for growing organic bananas in the country's history, and aimed to overtake production by the Dominican Republic, Haiti's neighbour on the island of Hispaniola.

This focus on agriculture and his provincial home became key campaign themes in the election. Backed by a communications team that was more advanced than those of his rivals, Mr Moise visited all 145 of Haiti's communes.

Like the other candidates in the race, Mr Moise did not flesh out details of his platform. But since arriving on the political scene his remarks have highlighted the idea of reviving, through agriculture, the deeply troubled Haitian economy.

Reeling from high inflation and the currency's sharp depreciation, the economy is staggering under a US$2 billion (S$2.87 billion) debt, a lack of public or private investment and anemic growth that is not expected to surpass one per cent this year.

"We are going to work to put the lands, the rivers, the sun with the citizens so that each Haitian can live better," he said on Tuesday (Jan 3) after his victory was confirmed, a phrase repeated by his closest supporters.

The optics of this small clan gathered around Mr Moise in a luxury hotel in the capital Port-au-Prince after the announcement stands in stark contrast to that of his campaign image of a man close to the countryside and the poor.

Big industrial companies and the economic elite financed and supported the political career of the president-elect, just as the wealthy minority had done for Mr Martelly.

But Mr Moise did not trumpet this continuity after his mentor left office last February. Mr Martelly has never participated in a public meeting with the "banana man". After a candidate-focused campaign, as is customary in Haiti, it is unclear at the moment who will be in his government, but Mr Moise vows that his administration will be tough-minded.

"I pledge before you to work with all Haitians, hand in hand, to put the country on the path to order, discipline and progress," Mr Moise said, warning that "the coming days will be difficult". In saluting Haitians on Tuesday (Jan 3) night after his victory announcement, Mr Moise presented himself as a strong president.

"I wish for all my compatriots health, the peace of order, order, order" - a word also repeated by his close supporters - "with security for the year 2017". A little more than a month before he takes office, Mr Moise wants to prove to his critics, more experienced politically, that he has what it takes to lead the country.

He also has called repeatedly on Haiti to overcome its endless political divisions.

"Political stability is the first of public goods," the president-elect often says.

Opponents have ended their challenge of Mr Moise's victory in court. But two of his three main opponents declared on Wednesday (Jan 4) they were not accepting his victory, raising the possibility of public protests.

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