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From pop star to president? Haiti looks set to elect 'Sweet Micky.'

Heading into today's Haiti election, polls show pop music star Michel 'Sweet Micky' Martelly with a lead over former First Lady Mirlande Manigat.

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Wild cards abound

While the race offers a marked contrast in personalities, both Martelly and Manigat are right-of-center moderates. Both promise to speed up rebuilding, fund education and health care, create jobs, strengthen Haitian security forces, and offer Haitians living abroad dual citizenship. Whoever wins, the political landscape will remain deeply unsettled, with former President Aristide just one of the wild cards.

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“Beyond Aristide, several concerns surround the election,” says Professor Jones, the political scientist. “Can it be staged without any of the major problems that occurred last fall, which included a large numbers of voters who were turned away from the polls, voter intimidation, and outright fraud? It’s going to be a close election and the business class seems to be worried about Martelly’s inexperience, but at the same time they seem to think that they can work with him.”

Hotelier and musician Richard Morse, a first cousin of Martelly whose Oloffson Hotel has served as the campaign’s unofficial headquarters, says Martelly’s candidacy represents the will of the people.

“He got back on the ballot when the powers-that-be realized his level of popular support,” says Mr. Morse. “Martelly wants to build homes and improve the infrastructure, but billions in aid haven’t come in because there is no faith in the Haitian government. He’s not talking about right-wing or left-wing, but about helping the Haiti people.”

Opponents on the left point to Martelly’s rumored past ties to right-wing elements of the Haitian military, and the Miami Herald recently reported that in the past year he lost three South Florida properties to foreclosure after defaulting on more than $1 million in personal loans, leading some to question his business judgment.

Big challenges

Regardless, Martelly’s ability to cut across political lines impresses political observers in the capital.

“Martelly’s music and style appeals to Aristide supporters, and he is the only one in this election to match Aristide’s popularity on the street,” says Georges Michel, a historian and journalist in Port-au-Prince. “He is also a businessman and has made money by honest work. Most Haitian leaders, when they come to power they don’t know how to create wealth. They want to steal, siphon, or share whatever revenues that are available.”

Whoever wins, the next president of Haiti faces enormous challenges, including 70 percent unemployment, hundreds of thousands of tent dwellers in the capital, and a lingering cholera epidemic. "Establishing a new political leadership able to respond to the aspirations of the Haitians is an essential condition for intensifying the reconstruction and development efforts," the European Union's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said in a March 18 statement.

Though nearly $10 billion was pledged by other nations following the 2010 earthquake, as of the end of 2010 only 43 percent had been released for relief efforts.

“Some of that aid will be released when Préval is gone and the new president is enjoying a honeymoon, then a much bigger portion will continue to be withheld until the new administration proves its competence and trustworthiness,” says Jones. “Then there’s another large portion that foreign governments and NGOs have never had any intention of giving to Haiti.”

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