PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (MCT) — Whenever an exiled Mirlande Manigat heard the sound of Haitian music, it made her heart ache.
“I was just sick,” said Manigat, longtime opposition leader, wife of former President Leslie Manigat and now aspiring president. “I was obsessed with returning.”
She did return, and today, Manigat, a grandmother and Sorbonne-educated university professor, is standing at the crossroads of history.
She is running for president of this beleaguered nation in a crowded field of 19 presidential hopefuls and she has consistently placed high in the polls.
A win would not only make her the first woman elected president of Haiti, and the second to serve, but would also put the country’s long divided opposition in power.
For some, she is the dignified, sentimental favorite in an election where the masses are disillusioned and skeptical over whether anyone can change their miserable existence following a devastating January earthquake, and now a deadly cholera epidemic.
She twice has seen the presidency slip from the family’s grasp. The first was when her husband, Leslie Manigat, won a 1988 vote, marred by military-orchestrated elections. After 41/2 months, he was overthrown in the middle of the night and the couple forced into exile.
“I felt the failure, the profound failure,” said Manigat, who was a senator at the time. “I felt like maybe I shouldn’t have entered politics. But I also sensed a huge amount of responsibility because of the popularity.”
In 2006, her husband came in second to Haitian President Rene Preval, following a controversial decision not to hold a presidential runoff.
At 70, Manigat is the oldest candidate in a race where her two closet opponents, Jude Celestin, 48, and Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, 49, are touting their young age in their bid for the youth vote.
Her age, Manigat said, is an asset — not a disadvantage.
“People call me ‘Mommy,’ ” she said. “They know that at my age I cannot be tempted by the perversions of politics like money or dictatorship. People see me as a mature person, someone with experience and they know very well I am not a puppet.”
A runoff slot in Sunday’s presidential elections would show the stark division in this broken nation between those who view her as a symbol of the intellectual elite — and those who say they represent the masses.
Manigat and her husband have led one of Haiti’s most organized political parties, RDNP, for some 30 years. But some voters have not forgiven her for her decision to pull out of a senatorial runoff in 2006 in protest over the presidential elections.
She is a constitutionalist who advocates tearing up the Haitian constitution, starting over and giving Haitians living in the diaspora the right to hold office, including the presidency.
Like her presidential rivals, her platform includes reshaping education to allow primary-school-age children to attend for free; decongesting the teeming capital and relocating the estimated 1.5 million people living in squalid tents, creating a satellite village, and reining in nongovernmental organizations.
“There are too many NGOs preying on the terrain,” she said.
In a country known more for political upheaval, Manigat speaks of the continuity of government. For instance, she has been one of the most vocal critics of the Interim Haiti Reconstruction plan that is guiding the country’s post-earthquake rebuilding.
Even so, she has no plans to do away with it, if elected.
Instead of reconstruction, Manigat prefers to talk about a politic of durable development to help shape the country the next 25 to 30 years.
“I want to put the country back on the right track.” she said. “The concentration of people who are not working could provoke a social explosion, which would not be good for political stability.”
She has her critics. Some are underwhelmed by her, questioning her leadership capabilities especially when she and her supporters in parliament could very well be in the minority in the next government.
Others complain that she lacks the excitement, and energy needed to build a quake-ravaged nation.
One opponent, Martelly, has taken aim, asking voters how can they trust her when she refused to serve them in 2006.
But for every critic, there are scores of supporters who view her as a break from the past, and say they want to give a woman a chance.
“I prefer someone who is sincere like Mirlande Manigat,” said Alex Saint-Louis, 43, an unemployed taxi driver living in a tent city in Petionville.
Other supporters include Sen. Youri Latortue, a fiery politician working the Artibonite region to boost Manigat.
Manigat is increasingly allowing herself to embrace the idea that she could emerge a winner out of Sunday’s election.
Still, she worries about attempts to steal the vote by buying off voters, and also violence, telling voters on the campaign trail the more of them who go to the polls the more difficult it will be for the election to be stolen.
“That’s the first thing I tell them at rallies, go vote,” she said.
(Miami Herald staff writer Trenton Daniel contributed to this report.)