Moise says he's ready for tests facing Haiti's next leader

PORT-AU-PRINCE— Repeating their stance from last year's annulled election, Haitian voters appear to have reached outside the intrigue-heavy political class to pick a first-time candidate to steer the deeply divided country as president for the next five years.

Jovenel Moise, an entrepreneur who routinely sticks to an optimistic tone, said Tuesday that he is looking forward to the challenge of building consensus with lawmakers and helping fix a political culture perpetually at war with itself.

"I am working hard to be close with the Parliament because there's no way a president can work without deputies, without senators," Moise told The Associated Press in his first interview with an international news agency since officials issued preliminary results indicating he won a Nov. 20 election redo in a landslide.

If the preliminary results withstand challenges by three of his closest rivals in coming weeks, Moise earned the presidency with 55 percent of the votes in a field of 27 candidates. He got 385,000 votes more than his nearest competitor, Jude Celestin, who had 19 percent of the vote.

Haiti's electoral council will not certify the preliminary results until all challenges are resolved by a special tribunal. Electoral winners are to be certified Dec. 29.

In a presidential election held in October 2015, Moise finished at the top of 54 candidates in first-round results after ads for the government-backed candidate blanketed Haitian TV and radio for weeks. A businessman from northern Haiti, he had never run for office until he was hand-picked to be the Tet Kale party candidate by outgoing President Michel Martelly.

Opponents quickly alleged fraud by Haiti's electoral council and Martelly's political operation. An array of rights groups, local election monitors and others made similar charges. The disputed results were annulled following a review of a special Haitian commission.

Some critics continue to view his ascent with suspicion, suggesting Martelly is using the candidate as a proxy. Moise laughed off the criticism, saying it is mostly about the snobbery of political elites in the capital.

"In Haiti, when you come from the countryside, the people here in Port-au-Prince, they think they know everything. But it's not true and I'm the example. In the countryside you have good people also — with knowledge, with vision, with capacity," Moise said in the interview at his campaign office.

The 48-year-old father of three said Martelly would be an adviser when he becomes president, and he wants to study his predecessor's successes and mistakes. Other previous presidents will also serve as advisers, he said.

Moise laid out his top priorities for strengthening the hemisphere's poorest country, a plan that focuses on agriculture, education, energy reform, and foreign investment.

Reviving an economically blighted countryside, including Haiti's southwest region, which was devastated by last month's Hurricane Matthew, is perhaps his main goal as he has repeatedly spoken about agriculture as the engine of his homeland's fragile economy.

Although almost 80 percent of rural households farm, agriculture receives less than 4 percent of the government's budget despite the persistent litany of natural disasters afflicting mostly subsistence farmers.

During his campaign, Moise touted his business background in agriculture as a central selling point.

In 2014, he launched the Agritrans banana exporting joint venture with the government on about 2,470 acres (1,000 hectares) in northeast Haiti with a $6 million loan approved by Martelly's administration. He proudly refers to himself by his campaign moniker, "Neg Bannan Nan" — Banana Man in Haitian Creole.

His first business venture was an auto parts company in Port-de-Paix, and he also distributed drinking water and created a project to bring renewable energy to several towns.

Moise's first hurdle is getting past electoral challenges from other candidates. Electoral authorities say they will thoroughly investigate all accusations of irregularities.

A revamped Provisional Electoral Council has been trying hard to show that the Nov. 20 election, organized with mostly Haitian resources, was clean in a country where accusations of vote-rigging and election fraud have long been common and are sometimes accurate. But three of the council's nine members declined to sign the preliminary tally sheet, one of them telling local radio that he was "uncomfortable" with the results.

A monitoring team from the Organization of American States said Tuesday that its observations were in line with Haiti's preliminary tally.

Robert Fatton, a Haitian-born politics professor at the University of Virginia, said he wasn't surprised that losing political factions are claiming vote-rigging again. "This is the traditional way of dealing with defeat in Haiti," he said.

Fatton noted that in spite of some irregularities and logistical problems, the election was perceived by virtually all observers, both national and foreign, as fair and free.

"The next few weeks and months will be bumpy and will test Jovenel Moise's statecraft and capacity to move the country in a new and hopeful trajectory," he said.