Haiti's two presidential candidates on Monday dismissed concerns that the apparently imminent return of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide would disrupt the election, despite a U.S. State Department warning that he could be a destabilizing presence.
Candidate Michel Martelly, a singer known as "Sweet Micky," told reporters that he did not think Aristide would influence the vote, though he prefers that the former president wait "two or three days" and postpone his arrival until after the election.
"He is welcome to come back like Jean-Claude Duvalier did," said Martelly, referring to the former dictator who made a surprise reappearance in Haiti in January. "I hope his return doesn't create instability for the elections."
Mirlande Manigat, a university administrator and former first lady, expressed no misgivings about the return of Aristide, who has repeatedly said during his exile in South Africa that he wants to return home as a private citizen and work as an educator. Manigat seemed to even encourage him.
"President Aristide is welcome to come back and help me with education," Manigat said.
Both candidates have been Aristide opponents in the past. Manigat, as a senator, was part of an opposition movement to his governments, and Martelly, as a performer, made many public statements denouncing him. Now, both stress his right to return as a Haitian citizen under the constitution.
"I have no problems with his coming back," Manigat told reporters.
An official in South Africa said last week that Aristide would return within days, and an aide to the former president said it was "imminent." The date of his arrival has not been released.
State Department spokesman Mark Toner acknowledged Aristide's right to return from South Africa, but said returning this week "can only be seen as a conscious choice to impact Haiti's elections."
Toner urged Aristide to "delay his return until after the electoral process has concluded to permit the Haitian people to cast their ballots in a peaceful atmosphere."
Aristide is a divisive figure in a country that is still struggling to rebuild after the January 2010 earthquake and that has had to contend with a cholera epidemic and a political crisis, sparked by the flawed first round of the election in November. Members of Aristide's former political party, Lavalas, have vowed to boycott the runoff vote because they say they were unfairly barred from participating in the election, though several people associated with the movement in the past ran as candidates.
Aristide is revered by some as a champion of the poor and accused by others of running a corrupt government that fostered violent attacks on opponents. He was driven from office by a violent rebellion in 2004 and was flown to exile on board a U.S. plane. He has accused American diplomats of kidnapping him, a charge Washington denies.
"He obviously is a polarizing figure," said Mark Schneider, special adviser on Latin America for the International Crisis Group, an independent research organization based in Washington. "But if he does come back, one would hope that he would first encourage peaceful participation and peaceful voting and national reconciliation."
After Duvalier's return, it emerged that Haitian officials had ignored Aristide's request for a passport, which may have been one of the factors preventing his return. That passport, a diplomatic one, was delivered last month in the waning days of the administration of his one-time protege, President Rene Preval.
Aristide lawyer Ira Kurzban said the former president wants to rebuild his educational foundation but fears that if he waits until after the election he may lose his chance.
"He is genuinely concerned that a change in the Haitian government may result in his remaining in South Africa," Kurzban said in a statement.
In a later interview, the lawyer said he is concerned that either candidate could buckle to U.S. pressure and reverse the Haitian government's decision to allow Aristide's return.
"Why is it the business of the U.S. government to interfere?" he said.
Associated Press writer Bradley Klapper in Washington contributed to this report.