PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has leaped from behind the scenes to take a major role in campaigning for next month's presidential election, leading many to believe the most polarizing figure in the tumultuous world of Haitian politics is poised to regain influence if his party wins.
Aristide's return to open campaigning for an ally is energizing supporters in poor neighborhoods who see the former slum priest as a near-messianic figure who fought for the country's most marginalized.
"He's the king of kings! Seeing him on the streets again is like being in paradise," Port-au-Prince slum resident Jhony Narcisse said as he jogged to keep up with Aristide's motorcade during a recent rally
Although Aristide said he wouldn't focus on politics after he returned from exile in 2011, the twice-elected, twice-ousted leader has been vigorously campaigning for Maryse Narcisse, the presidential candidate for his Fanmi Lavalas party. While Aristide isn't a candidate for any post, he has been giving stump speeches and waving to adoring loyalists from a convoy touring the country.
In a recent speech, delivered through the sunroof of an SUV, he declared that Lavalas would build homes for the poor if Narcisse, one of 27 candidates in the Oct. 9 election, is elected.
"We're not going to build small bird cages. We are going to build houses," Aristide said to cheers from the crowd.
Such remarks suggest to some that he would not sit on the sidelines of a Narcisse presidency.
"It is clear that a victory would allow Aristide to govern behind the throne," said Henry Carey, a Haiti expert and political science professor at Georgia State University.
Aristide became a global figure of resistance when, as a slum priest known for fiery oratory, he led a popular movement that ousted the hated dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier in 1986. He was elected president in 1990, forced out in a military coup a year later and restored to power by the U.S. in 1994 to serve out the remainder of his term. As a champion of the poor and advocate of leftist "liberation theology," he was deeply hated by members of the elite who worked to unseat him.
Re-elected in 2000 amid low turnout and an opposition boycott, he was ousted four years later in a nationwide rebellion led by opponents with ties to the elite and the old Duvalierist regime. His critics accused Aristide of breaking promises to help the poor, allowing corruption fueled by drug trafficking and masterminding attacks on opponents with armed gangs.
Aristide spent seven years in exile in South Africa after his 2004 ouster. He was greeted by jubilant crowds upon his return to Haiti in 2011, but largely kept a low profile until this year.
A candidate would need to surpass 50 percent to win outright in next month's balloting. That is unlikely with such a crowded field. Analysts say that Narcisse, thanks at least in part to Aristide and those who remain faithful to his party, has an outside chance to emerge as one of the two finalists. Narcisse finished fourth in last year's opening round, which was later annulled amid accusations of fraud.
Narcisse said in an interview with The Associated Press that she welcomes Aristide's help in her campaign and would consider him a valuable adviser if she were to win, though she said he was not interested in a Cabinet post.
"I'm very happy that he's there. He's a charismatic leader," she said. "The population listens to him. There's a love relation between Haitians and him."
Narcisse isn't the only candidate with ties to the former president.
The field also includes Jude Celestin, who is backed by Rene Preval, a former protege of Aristide who served as president in 1996-2001 and then again in 2006-2011. Figures once closely affiliated with the Lavalas movement, including Moise Jean-Charles and Jean Henry Ceant, are now presidential candidates on other platforms they created.
While it's easy to find hardcore Lavalas supporters in neighborhoods that were once Aristide strongholds, roughly a third of Haiti's population is younger than 15 and only know his image from placards or paintings sold on roadsides. There are also voters in these poor districts who view him as a disappointing figure from the past.
Ravix Fadius, a plumber with three kids who recently moved back to his mother's shack because he can't find steady work, said Aristide is just another Haitian politician who repeatedly put his own interests before those of the populace.
"Aristide and Lavalas had their chances to make things better and they didn't," he said on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince's seaside slum of Cite Soleil, where people live in rows of squalid hovels. "You can't build a sewer and call it a village."