THE BLOG

Haiti Election: Why Martelly Stood to Win

This may be one most significant elections in the Haiti's history. After a hotly contested first round in November, the top two candidates, pop star Michel Martelly and the experienced doyen Mirlande Manigat faced each other in a tight race to become Haiti's next president.

Martelly supporters who torched the streets in protest over the results from the first round of votes have threatened to do it again, if they do not win this time around.

There have already been allegations of fraud. Preliminary results expected Thursday were delayed until Monday. Provisional Electoral Council President said the council needed to take more "stringent" measures to verify vote counts.

If Martelly loses, "we will burn the country," Pras Michel, Martelly's Secretary of State pick, told a reporter.

"The people want change. [If Martelly loses] it will be due to fraud. The people will burn the country. Do you see what's happening in Egypt? We're the ones who started that revolution."

When the first election results cast Martelly out of the run-off in December 2010, a wave of protests soon gave way to riots and resulted in at least four deaths. After some prodding from the international community, the ruling party candidate, Jude Céléstin, who had officially won second place, dropped out.

Why Martelly Stands to Win

Although, Manigat led the first round of votes with 31.3 percent, some observers say Martelly will win on the strength of his ambitious campaigning and popularity among the youth.

Youth Vote

"Those who voted for Manigat already did. Martelly stands to gain way more than her in this round," says Haitian Radio Journalist Carel Pèdre.

Although the name Manigat is well-reputed in political and academic circles in Haiti, the majority -- 54 per cent -- of those eligible to vote are under 25 years old and will not likely remember her turn as First Lady in 1988.

Visibility

Perhaps the weakest spot in the Manigat campaign has been visibility -- something that her team has blamed on scarce financial backing.

Although Manigat counts on the support of some of the established political elite, her campaign claims that, as of February 2011, they had only been able to spend 400,000 USD. "We could not even pay our mandataires [poll watchers] more than 9 USD for his daily fees," Manigat Representative Gérard Evanns told me.

But Evanns maintains that Manigat's support base is strong enough so as to withstand Martelly's aggressive campaigning. "There are places where we were only able to send a thousand pictures and still they voted for Mrs. Manigat," he boasted.

Visibility was especially important in this election because on paper the two candidates are rather similar. They are both moderates with a strong focus on education reform.

"The winner will be whoever succeeds in presenting the best dream to the Haitians," Pèdre said. And, using his allure as a showman, Martelly did just that.

The popular singer has a reputation for smutty jokes and puns that would make grandmothers cringe but that delight the youth. Young people are enthralled with his image as the successful self-made man in a country where opportunity is mostly a degree of nepotism.

Martelly has painted Mrs. Manigat as "out of touch" by mocking her delicate Sorbonne-minted French. The former First Lady has not done herself any favors either, telling reporters that some of her favorite musical pieces are Gregorian chants.

Credibility

Although most people respect Manigat's credentials as a law professor with 32 years of political experience in the RNDP Party, they doubt her resolve. In 2006 she renounced her senate seat when her husband, Leslie, failed to win the presidency. Mrs. Manigat has since said she pulled out because there had been fraud.

Manigat also lost some credibility last year. During the first round of 2010 presidential contest, she joined a group of candidates who called for a do-over amid speculations of widespread fraud that allegedly favored the ruling INITE party. Yet, when the official results placed Mrs. Manigat in the lead, she withdrew her petition.

Eddy Léonard, a civil engineer from Haiti, told me "there is nothing about her that can make people angry. But, to show me that you are a leader you have to take the decision even if it is unpopular with your base. You are not here to satisfy your base and leave everyone else behind."

This is the mistake Sunday's party-crashing Jean-Bertrand Aristide made in the past. In an atmosphere already fraught with tensions, Aristide arrived from exile this weekend to witness the momentous election.

Aristide, who was ousted in his final term by a U.S.-backed military coup, was hailed as a modern-day messiah upon election for the first time in 1990. As a priest he mixed liberal theology and politics delivering hope. However, allegations of corruption tanked his credibility leading to an eventual armed rebellion and exile in South Africa.

"I regret voting for Aristide," Léonard told me. "He didn't understand that he had to build coalition. He preferred his own way, attacking those who have money and making the rest believe they are responsible for their misfortune."

Stump Speeches

Some people have also been surprised by Manigat's brevity, which has led to questions about her age and stamina.

Age is irrelevant, says Evanns. "We guarantee experience with someone who gets up everyday thinking about school and the youth. Someone who has been engaged in politics."

In fact, at 70 years old, her age is an advantage, he said. "She has worked all her life. At her age, would you steal? You're not going to steal at 71 if you haven't before."

Despite his jokester ways, Martelly did actually campaign in a serious way. "He talked about investement and job creation," Pèdre said.

Martelly has talked with more specificity about his plans.

Knowing that Haitians are enthusiastic lottery-buyers, "he plans to set up a national lottery and from the money it generates and taxes he will fund education," Pèdre told me. He has also talked about his plans for reconstruction in stages in order to make sure all quake-affected areas are improving at the same rate.

Charisma v. Experience

Despite Martelly's popularity, Evanns maintains that people will never trust him for lack of experience. "We want to sell an image of knowledge, experience, competence."

He told me that the strength of the Manigat campaign does not rest solely on her shoulders. "Madame Manigat is not a person. She is the symbol of a team. And, Michel Martelly is a character," he continued.

"They put a tie on him and they made him talk to the people," Evanns says. "But the real person is Sweet Mickey who has spent his entire life dancing in the Carnival, with a little miniskirt on. It's him who faces Madame Manigat who, on the other hand, spent her life building up the population, building up the community. Martelly has great potential, great value, but in the cultural sector," he finished.

"It is the first time we have a second round in a democratic presidential election and I think it's a great exercise," Pèdre said. "Now people really have to focus before they choose."

Note: Final election results due April 16