PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Twice-ousted Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide urged thousands of supporters gathered outside his house Wednesday to vote for the presidential candidate of the political faction he founded years ago.
Backers of the Fanmi Lavalas movement chanted, sang and waved photos of Aristide after they trekked to his home in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Tabarre following a campaign rally miles away for the party's presidential candidate.
In early evening, Aristide appeared outside his gate with Lavalas' presidential candidate and party chief, Maryse Narcisse, to address the festive crowd. Standing on the back of a pickup truck alongside Narcisse, he called on supporters to ensure that the party's leader wins this year's presidential election. The first round is Oct. 25.
"Everybody needs to stick together for Maryse Narcisse to enter the National Palace as president," Aristide said into a microphone during his roughly seven-minute speech, prompting loud cheers and applause.
Music blared from loud speakers as excited partisans jostled to catch a glimpse of the charismatic ex-president outside the home where he has lived quietly since returning to Haiti in 2011. People chanted that Aristide, who asserted upon his return to Haiti that he would not get involved in politics, was their "king."
"I am here because I love him and I hope that the Lavalas party he began can get back in power with these elections," said unemployed laborer Jean Robert, one of several thousand people who walked for about 1½ hours under police watch to gather outside Aristide's walled property.
Aristide remains a popular yet polarizing figure more than a decade after he fled the country on a U.S. plane in February 2004 amid a violent rebellion that led to his second ouster. He has stayed mostly silent at his family home since he returned to Haiti in 2011 following years of exile in South Africa.
Partisans began traveling to Tabarre any way they could after Narcisse told the rally in Port-au-Prince that Aristide was waiting for them at his home. She made the comments after officially launching her bid to become Haiti's next president. For days, party officials have also been telling local radio stations that Aristide planned to speak publicly in favor of Narcisse's candidacy.
Narcisse is among over 50 candidates vying for the job to replace President Michel Martelly, who cannot run for a consecutive term.
Aristide's public endorsement could be a boon for Narcisse, who is polling well below front-runner Jude Celestin. During the last election cycle about five years ago, the party was barred from the ballot.
A former slum priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president, Aristide was a champion of the country's impoverished masses and led a movement to oust dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. He alienated Haiti's wealthy elite and was forced from power twice, first by a military junta in 1991 and again by a violent rebellion in 2004.
Critics say Aristide broke promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by the drug traffic and masterminding attacks on opponents with armed gangs.
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