Wyclef Jean keeps supporters hopeful in his run for Haiti president

Wyclef Jean is appealing an election commission's decision to bar him from running for Haiti president. Support runs high among youths like Rockson Elian, unemployed since the Jan. 12 earthquake.

Ramon Espinosa/AP
Haitian-born singer and presidential candidate Wyclef Jean, second left, walks surrounded by security after Haiti's Electoral Council rejected his candidacy in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Aug. 20.

Hip-hop star Wyclef Jean says he will not step out of the presidential race in Haiti, after an electoral commission excluded him from a final candidate list late Friday night. And in doing so, he is appealing to young men like Rockson Elian, unemployed since his business was destroyed in the Jan. 12 earthquake.

He, like so many other Haitians, says Mr. Jean represents a change from politics as usual.

“Wyclef is not somebody that was in politics before – he is new and that gives everyone hope,” the mechanic says from the capital, Port-au-Prince. “People have already seen these other candidates. They were already in politics and did nothing for us. We want to experience something different.”

IN PICTURES: Wyclef for President

Jean's star power has certainly brought an international spotlight to the Nov. 28 vote, which will elect an administration to reconstruct the country and rebuild lives for the estimated 1.5 million people left homeless by the quake. The electoral commission (CEP) announced Aug. 20 that 15 candidacies had been rejected, from an original pool of 34, including Jean's.

'Law must be Respected'

Jean initially urged followers to accept the ruling and behave "peacefully and responsibly."

"Though I disagree with the ruling, I respectfully accept the committee's final decision, and I urge my supporters to do the same," he said in a statement Friday. But he changed course on Sunday, promising to file an appeal and renewing hopes among his backers.

"Tomorrow our Lawyers are appealing the decision of the CEP," he wrote Sunday on his Twitter account. "We have met all the requirements set by the laws. And the law must be Respected."

Support for him is obvious in graffiti across Port-au-Prince, with walls sprayed with the words, “The People Want Wyclef.”

“He has a lot of popularity among unemployed youths who are looking for a savior,” says James Morrell, executive director of the Haiti Democracy Project in Washington.

Political interference?

Jean, a Haitian-born musician who rose to fame in the 1990s with Grammy-winning band the Fugees, has little political experience and no clear presidential platform, but his popularity has reinvigorated the young, who make up an overwhelming majority of the country. The median age of Haitians is 20.5 years.

The electoral board did not say why it rejected Jean or the other 14 candidates. Leading up to the decision, it appeared that Jean's greatest obstacle would be a challenge to his residency. The Constitution requires that candidates live in Haiti for five consecutive years prior to a race. Jean had argued that his appointment as roving ambassador of Haiti in 2007 precluded him from vigorous compliance with that law. He owns homes in Haiti and the United States, and also spends time traveling on music tours.

Speaking to the Associated Press via phone from a Port-au-Prince suburb Sunday, Jean said that his lawyers planned to file an appeal with the national electoral dispute office. He suggested that the political establishment was behind the electoral board decision, which the board has denied.

'Decision is final'

Pierre Thibolt, communication director of the CEP, says that the decision was unanimous among commission members and that it was not political. The delay in the announcement was a result of the tremendous amount of work in ascertaining the validity of 34 presidential bids, he says.

But that's not a good enough reason for Elian, the unemployed mechanic, who suspects politics at play.

“They don’t want young people to go to power. It’s not just about the residency. There are many people that don’t live here that are in power,” he says. “They see the youth is with Wyclef, and the youth is the majority, so they got scared."

Mr. Thibolt says that Jean's appeal might not get very far. “All I know is that according to the 1987 Constitution, the CEP’s decision is final and there can be no appeal,” he says.

Authorities were braced for protests after the electoral commission announced its decision to bar Jean from the race. So far, no major incidents have been reported. Jean has urged patience as he seeks to appeal the decision.

IN PICTURES: Wyclef for President

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