Unlikely pair seen as Haiti frontrunners – thestar.com

Haitian presidential candidates Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old grandmother, and Michel Martelly, a 49-year old pop star, are expected to face each other in a runoff vote to be held next month.

Haitian presidential candidates Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old grandmother, and Michel Martelly, a 49-year old pop star, are expected to face each other in a runoff vote to be held next month.

PORT-AU-PRINCE—When Mirlande Manigat arrived at Collège Frère Ladauceur on Nov. 28 to cast her vote in Haiti’s presidential election, no cheering mob was there to greet her. She pulled up in a bulletproof SUV, surrounded by police flourishing automatic weapons and slowly, ever so slowly, made her way to the entrance.

Short, with gold-rimmed glasses and hair tied back, the 70-year-old former first lady had a vague air of Miss Marple about her, which shouldn’t completely surprise, given Manigat’s outsized admiration for all things Agatha Christie.

Only an hour earlier, in Pétionville, Michel Martelly had similarly cast a ballot, but his arrival at a three-storey high school was all pop-star pandemonium, with mothers pushing their children forward for a glimpse of the politician formerly known as “Sweet Micky,” bad-boy singer of kompas, Haiti’s version of merengue.

In what once seemed the least likely result of a presidential campaign involving 19 candidates, Haiti’s electoral council is now widely expected to announce Tuesday that Manigat and Martelly will go head to head in a runoff slated for Jan. 16.

Polling and leaked partial results of the initial election have put Martelly on top with as much as 39 per cent of the vote, to roughly 31 per cent for Manigat. Haiti’s constitution calls for a runoff if no one exceeds 50 per cent.

But the campaign of former front-runner Jude Célestin, having earlier conceded likely defeat, has also been putting word out that Célestin is gathering momentum as the vote-counting continues.

“It’s a special time in Haiti now,” says Michelle Bayard Gehy, a longtime political operative who has been sitting out this election. “Everybody’s waiting for Tuesday.”

If it does end up as Manigat versus Martelly, it’s hard to imagine two candidates less alike in background and demeanour.

Where Manigat is affectionately called “Mom” and “Mommy” by her supporters, Martelly’s musical alter-ego often appears on stage in drag, swilling rum and mooning his audience.

Manigat’s taste in music leans instead toward the religious chestnuts of the classical canon, such as Mozart’s Requiem and Handel’s Messiah. In her campaign literature, she admits to knowing little about the music of younger people, although she professes almost grandmotherly affection for Sweet Micky’s music, at least when it’s not filled with too many “bêtises” – foolish or stupid lines.

A lifelong academic and sometime senator, Manigat met her husband, Leslie Manigat, when she was studying at the Sorbonne in the 1960s and he was her history professor. They’ve now been married 39 years, with a daughter and grandchildren living in Togo.

The Manigats’ interests have long revolved around politics. Leslie Manigat, now 80, fled into exile in Paris after Haitian dictator François “Papa Doc” Duvalier had condemned him to death. He returned after the 1986 ouster of Duvalier’s son, Jean-Claude, and was Haiti’s president for almost four months in 1988 before the army overthrew him in a coup. In the 2006 election, he came a distant second to outgoing president René Préval.

Martelly, 49, likes to say that he first thought of entering politics 15 years ago, but until now he’s only been the self-styled prezidan of kompas nation. Music has certainly been good to him, allowing Martelly to move from fairly humble roots in the Carrefour neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince to the prosperous heights of Pétionville.

But wealth didn’t stop Sweet Micky from playing even the smallest towns and villages around Haiti, which has only strengthened his populist appeal. And the charity he and wife Sophia started many years ago has been active in the camps since the Jan. 12 earthquake. Such are Martelly’s grassroots associations that until a series of interviews in Montreal last spring, most Haitians, whose daily language is Creole, had no idea that a now crisply suited Martelly was fluent in French.

For much of the campaign, various polls had put Célestin in a dead heat against Manigat, who has solid support among Haiti’s small middle class. But Martelly’s internal polling put him ahead for the first time two weeks ago after the last presidential debate. His message — that he’s fresh, passionate and unconnected with the failures and abuse of past governments — was getting traction among voters frustrated by the glacial pace of post-earthquake reconstruction.

That lack of government experience gives pause to the likes of Astrid Jacques, a prominent member of the Haitian diaspora in Toronto, but “he knows his people, he really does.

“The status quo is not going to win at this point, and that’s fine, as long as he can do some very basic things for Haiti,” says Jacques. “Haitian people need to live in decent housing, and there’s this thing called ‘employment.’ You need to lift Haiti up from misery.”

Like most presidential candidates, Martelly and Manigat have both promised to boost agriculture, provide free primary education and reach out to the Haitian diaspora.

Unlike Manigat, however, Martelly has pledged to re-establish the Haitian army, disbanded in the 1990s, which might seem an odd promise given Haiti’s history of military repression and coups d’état. But Bayard Gehy said such a move is bound to be popular among voters who remember a time of less chaos than now — and who resent the United Nations all but usurping Haiti’s sovereignty.

“When the army was there, it was much more orderly,” says Bayard Gehy. “You could live, you could work. (Now) everything is negative.”

On one point, Manigat and Martelly are firmly and, to many, hypocritically in unison: That the election runoff should go forward. This despite the fact that barely a week ago both had stood on the same stage with 10 other candidates to denounce the initial election as a “massive fraud” orchestrated by Préval to install Célestin.

Now that Manigat or Martelly or both appear headed to a runoff, voter turnout is apt to heavy, putting additional pressure on Haiti’s already fragile election apparatus.

“You have only two choices,” notes Bayard Gehy. “And the stakes are high now.”