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.

By , Correspondent

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    A Haitian man attends a concert organized by the party of presidential candidate Michel Martelly in downtown Port-au-Prince March 17. The Western Hemisphere's poorest state, which is still recovering after a devastating January 2010 earthquake, will vote for a new president on March 20, with musician Michel Martelly facing off against former first lady Mirlande Manigat.
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During a carnival this month in the southern Haitian city of Jacmel, ra-ra bands and costumers found themselves upstaged by Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, a singer of Haiti's kompa music who was once best known for his outrageous lyrics and occasionally performing in drag.

Now the top candidate for president in today's election, his street-level campaign in the festive seaside city included a beach concert that drew a crowd of several thousand fans and supporters.

Such strong grassroots popularity, combined with an effort to align himself with Haiti's business elite, looks set to propel the political novice to victory over over former First Lady Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old Sorbonne-educated lawyer. Recent polls show the middle-aged pop music star with a lead ranging from 4 percent to 30 percent.

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“Martelly is young and strong and I hope things get better with him, that he will bring more business and more jobs," says 29-year-old Jean Pierre Dielifet, who has lived in a refugee tent camp since a massive earthquake flattened Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince last year, killing more than 200,000 and leaving some 1.5 million homeless. "Haitians are tired of leaders pretending that they are for the people. It’s better to try something new than the same thing as before, because the men who came before did nothing.”

Aristide returns, Wyclef gets shot in the hand

Haitians going to the polls hope that a new president will offer a fresh start for the country’s stalled recovery.

A tense atmosphere loomed in the capital, however, as word spread that Martelly-supporter and famous Haitian-American hip hop star Wyclef Jean was shot in the hand Saturday night and amid concerns that the election could be disrupted by Friday's surprise return of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

“If [Aristide's] return prompts demonstrations in the streets which result in a low voter turn out, then there could be legitimacy issues concerning the election,” says political scientist Mark Jones, of Rice University.

Martelly's candidacy took off after Mr. Jean was declared ineligible to run for president last year. (Jean has been treated for a graze gunshot to his hand, according to a statement, but the circumstances of the Saturday night incident remain unclear.)

Martelly's support from the impoverished urban demographic mirrors that of Mr. Aristide when he ran the country in 1991 and again from 1994 to 1996 and from 2001 to 2004. And protests by this group, which carries a lot of weight in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation, have helped Martelly, as they have helped Aristide over the years.

Street riots following the initial poll in November – international observers determined that widespread fraud was carried out by President Rene Préval’s INITE party, favoring his chosen successor, Jude Celestinput Martelly back on the ballot for today's runoff against Ms. Manigat.

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.

“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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