August 14, 2011

THREE MONTHS after his inauguration, the presidency of Michel Martelly, Haiti’s new leader, is dangerously close to running aground. Two of his nominees for prime minister have been rejected by Haiti’s opposition-dominated parliament. In the absence of a fully functioning government, international aid and investment have slowed to a crawl. So have Mr. Martelly’s own top priorities — resettling hundreds of thousands victims of last year’s earthquake still living in tent cities, and reviving the nation’s shattered public schools so that children have access to education.

No one expected miracles from the new president, a political neophyte whose celebrity as a bawdy carnival singer helped catapult him to the presidency. The keys to his elective success were his popularity as a performer and his status as an outsider. But, with no real party structure of his own, he’s also been unable to work his will in parliament. Hence the rejection of his two candidates for prime minister.

Mr. Martelly shares the blame. Rather than seeking reconciliation and new allies following bruising, deeply flawed elections, he has continued to rely on a small circle of friends and advisers. His first pick for prime minister, an intelligent American-educated entrepreneur, had no more political experience than Mr. Martelly. His second, a former justice minister remembered chiefly for reprisals and repression directed at his ideological enemies, stood no chance of confirmation — as Mr. Martelly was repeatedly and publicly warned.

Meanwhile, the president made five overseas trips in his first eight weeks in office — including one to Spain, a country of little significance for Haiti. It’s hard to know whether these rookie mistakes are the product of inexperience, incompetence or both.

Now the president says that it may be another six months before he manages to install a prime minister to lead his government. If that turns out to be the case, it will only compound Haitians’ suffering and confirm the growing international impression of a rudderless, politically querulous nation incapable of helping itself.

Already, reconstruction efforts have been painfully slow. More than 600,000 people, displaced from their homes by the quake, remain in tent-and-tarp cities in and around the capital of Port-au-Prince. Vast fields of rubble remain to be cleared. Of $5.6 billion pledged by international donors for what was to be the original, 18-month recovery period following the earthquake in January 2010, scarcely 40 percent has been disbursed, and far less has actually made its way to projects on the ground.

It’s not that the new president lacks decent ideas or instincts. He has proposed a solid pilot plan for resettling tens of thousands of displaced residents of tent cities, and he has wisely extended the mandate of an interim relief commission led by Bill Clinton and Jean-Max Bellerive, prime minister under the previous government. His program to provide free primary education to children, and to finance it with higher taxes on wire transfers and international calls, is sensible.

But if Mr. Martelly is to have even a slight hope of success, he needs to reach out to his adversaries in parliament, widen his circle of advisers and broaden his base of support. So far, he’s stuck in the mud.