By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE, April 13 (Reuters) - Haiti’s political leaders began the search for a new prime minister on Sunday after a week of riots sparked by skyrocketing food prices led to the ouster of the impoverished Caribbean nation’s government.
The political grapevine buzzed with the names of possible replacements for Prime Minister Jacques Edouard Alexis, who was fired on Saturday in a vote by 16 opposition senators who said he had not done enough to ramp up food production and reduce the cost of living.
By tradition, Alexis was likely to remain in office until a new government leader and cabinet were chosen. President Rene Preval will propose a candidate to parliament, which must ratify the selection.
"The new prime minister needs to be someone who can unify. He should not be partisan," said Anthony Barbier, a sociology professor at Haiti’s University of Notre Dame and a member of the Fusion political party.
"It should be someone with great sensitivity toward the poor so that he can look for solidarity in favor of those less privileged," he said.
Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas and one ravaged by political upheaval, dictatorship and military rule since a slave revolt threw off French rule 200 years ago, has struggled to install stable democratic institutions since the end of the Duvalier family reign in 1986.
The latest upheaval follows a week of rioting by Haitians enraged at the soaring cost of rice, beans, cooking oil and other staples.
Preval, who also served as president from 1996 to 2001, is the only elected leader to serve a full term and successfully pass power to a democratic successor.
But he is no stranger to a protracted search for a new prime minister.
In his first term, it took him 21 months to put a new government in place after then-Prime Minister Rosny Smarth resigned in June 1997.
A stalemate with parliament then left the government virtually paralyzed and hampered negotiations with international donors. Preval nominated two candidates who were rejected by lawmakers before settling on Alexis, who was installed by decree after the legislature was dissolved.
One of Preval’s rejected candidates in 1997 is among the names being floated for prime minister by political analysts and radio show hosts now — Ericq Pierre, a senior adviser with the Inter-American Development Bank.
Analysts were also suggesting longtime politician Paul Denis as a possible candidate.
A former senator with the opposition party Organization for People in the Struggle (OPL), Denis ran unsuccessfully for president against Preval in 2006 and headed a commission of inquiry that in 2005 accused ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of misusing $50 million in public money.
He now serves as an adviser to Preval, as does Evans "Dady" Lescouflair, an OPL member and former secretary of state for youth and sports whose name has also been floated.
Of the three, political analyst Aviol Fleurant, a law professor at the State University of Haiti, said only Pierre had the requisite independence.
"He is not known to be part of any political sector. He is a technician and he should be able to put everybody together because no one has a prejudice against him," Fleurant said.
"Paul Denis would be problematic because he is fundamentally anti-Lavalas," said Fleurant, speaking of the Lavalas political movement started by Aristide, who was ousted in a bloody rebellion in 2004.
Although out of power, the movement still holds great sway with Haiti’s poor masses.
Preval gave few hints on the leadership search on Saturday just before the Senate vote against Alexis. He did say, however, that he would make his choice in consultation with the leaders of the Senate and Chamber of Deputies.
"What matters to me is stability," he said at a news conference, revealing a glimpse of frustration over yet another failed government with the ouster of an ally and friend.
"I told them we had to work together to put in place a common program ... but it didn’t happen." (Writing by Jim Loney; Editing by Michael Christie and Eric Beech)