Haiti to pick new president in uncertain climate

AP News
Posted: Mar 19, 2011 5:20 PM
Haiti to pick new president in uncertain climate

The choice could not be more distinct _ a brash musician versus a matronly former first lady. Yet it's the name that isn't on the ballot that could play a decisive role in Haiti's presidential runoff Sunday.

That name is Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-ousted former president who made a triumphant return from exile two days before the election that will determine who leads Haiti as it struggles to emerge from a political crisis and cholera outbreak while launching a multibillion-dollar earthquake reconstruction effort.

With his arrival, the popular and polarizing Aristide immediately sparked feverish speculation over his motivations and intentions, even though his party was barred from the ballot.

His endorsement, if he offers it, could be a boon for one of the two candidates in the runoff. If he tells his followers to boycott the election, it could disrupt the vote and add an influential voice to critics who say it lacks legitimacy.

For some in Aristide's Family Lavalas party, which electoral officials eliminated over technicalities that supporters say were bogus, there is no option but boycott.

"The solution isn't the election. The election is the problem because Lavalas was excluded," said Abellard Shiller, a 49-year-old high school teacher who was among the thousands who greeted Aristide when he returned Friday. "We've had election after election, but this country has only gotten worse."

Aristide has stayed silent since a speech at the airport in which he criticized the exclusion of Lavalas, seeming to contradict previous statements from supporters that he would not get involved in politics.

The effect of his presence remains uncertain in a race that largely turns on the personalities of candidates Mirlande Manigat, a university administrator and former first lady, and Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a pop star.

Both candidates have been critical of Aristide in the past. On Saturday, the Manigat campaign claimed the former president subtly endorsed her by alluding to her campaign during his arrival speech.

A Lavalas spokesman, Ansyto Felix, said there was no endorsement.

Whoever wins will face major challenges, including a Senate and Chamber of Deputies controlled by the party of outgoing President Rene Preval, barred by the constitution from running for re-election. They may also face a surge in cholera once the rainy season starts and anger over the fact that 800,000 people are still in what were once optimistically labeled "temporary settlement camps" after the January 2010 earthquake.

"Everybody is waiting for these elections to be done and nobody wants to make a move until they are," said Yves Colon, a Haitian-born journalism professor at the University of Miami. "Haitians are looking for someone who can take them out of this hole they're in."

Preliminary results from the Nov. 28 first round of voting showed Martelly wouldn't make the runoff, finishing third in a field of 18 candidates. Young men surged into the streets in protest, setting off nearly three days of riots that shut down the capital. The Organization of American States determined the results were flawed and "Sweet Micky" in fact placed second to Manigat, and Martelly ultimately was put on the runoff ballot.

Haiti's streets have been relatively calm ever since.

The two candidates have similar agendas, promising to make education universal in a country where only half the children attend school, to build homes and to foster economic growth. Both have said they want to restore Haiti's armed forces, eliminated by Aristide in 1995 after a long history of abuses.

Martelly is a first-time politician _ and that matters in a country where the government has failed to provide basic services.

"We want to start with somebody who's new, somebody who hasn't been in politics before," said Robenson Naval, a 34-year-old unemployed plumber, living in a camp across from the ruined National Palace. "We've been trashed by the previous political leaders. They took our votes and dragged them in the ground."

But Ebert Cineus, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher, said Martelly's lack of experience is too much of a risk.

"Martelly says he will send all children to school free, but that's an impossible dream," Cineus said. Manigat "is someone who knows how to negotiate. She can get the international community to help this country change."

Martelly is considered the front-runner since his rallies have been attracting larger crowds _ though his popularity as a musician could be boosting attendence.

The 50-year-old father of four is a master of compas, Haitian music with a slowed-down merengue beat. His campaign rallies, sometimes with Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean at his side, are like concerts.

But past rock star antics have come back to haunt him. He has admitted smoking marijuana and crack cocaine. On stage, he has at times dressed in women's clothes or mooned the audience. His critics point to his lack of a college degree and say he doesn't have the gravitas to be president.

Martelly shrugs off criticism of his past by calling the incidents youthful excesses. He says he has administrative experience from running his charitable foundation and will appoint experts to help run the country.

"In music you want to please your fans," he said. "But sometimes it's very controversial ... In politics you have to be responsible."

Manigat would be Haiti's first elected woman president. She tells voters to call her "mother" or "grandmother" and has fretted about morality. The 70-year-old law professor has been an enduring presence on the political scene ever since her husband, Leslie, became president nearly 25 years ago, serving seven months before the military booted him.

Martelly and other critics lump Manigat, a former senator, into a political system that has failed Haiti. They also point to her Sorbonne doctorate as proof that the Francophone university vice rector is out of touch with the population _ though she says that proves she is qualified for the job and committed to education.

"Diplomas, diplomas, diplomas _ I have them," she said at a recent news conference. Then she took a swipe at her less educated opponent: "It's not my fault he doesn't have a diploma."

The first results from the runnof are expected March 31.