How 'Sweet Micky' Martelly transformed from carnival singer to Haiti president

Preliminary results from Haiti's presidential election show that Michel Martelly, also known as 'Sweet Micky,' won in a landslide victory.

Dieu Nalio Chery/AP
Supporters of Haiti's presidential candidate Michel 'Sweet Micky' Martelly carry a large poster of him as they celebrate after the announcement of preliminary results for the presidential election runoff in the Petion Ville neighborhood of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Monday, April 4.

From popular carnival singer known for dropping his pants on stage to buttoned-down president of Haiti, Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly is on the verge of completing an unlikely transformation.

In a landslide victory, Mr. Martelly captured two-thirds of the vote in a run-off presidential election, according to preliminary results released Monday evening by Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council.

Port-au-Prince was marked by celebrations following the announcement, as supporters launched fireworks, shot guns into the air, and played Martelly's songs on their radios, news media reported.

His opponent, former First Lady Mirlande Manigat, can challenge the results, the release of which was delayed several days because of fraud. But it appears unlikely that she could close the 36-point gap, having taken 31.74 percent of the vote to Martelly's 67.57 percent. The final results will be announced April 16.

The US embassy endorsed the tally, calling the announcement "another important milestone as the people of Haiti move forward to rebuild their country.... while there were cases of irregularities and fraud on March 20, these cases were isolated and reduced, especially when compared to the first round of voting."

If the results stand, Martelly will have made a startling run from political outsider to president of a country in desperate need of strong leadership. Evidence of the January 2010 earthquake still remains widespread, with hundreds of thousands of people still living in tents, rubble on the streets, and the vast majority of people in the capital unemployed.

Embracing a flamboyant past

Martelly seems an improbable savior. Just a decade ago, he was donning skirts and wigs, cursing, and drinking like a sailor while performing his flamboyant act.

“When he first declared himself a candidate, people didn’t take him seriously because he was the guy who dropped his pants on stage,” says Robert Fatton, a Haitian-American professor at the University of Virginia. “His persona, which should have been a handicap, became a plus. It was really a very clever campaign.”

Instead of turning his back on his flamboyant past, Martelly used pieces of it to motivate the youth vote and to position himself as a political outsider. The bubble gum pink splashed on his campaign posters and vehicles was a nod to his old act, as were the rallies, during which he mixed policy with stagemanship.

The other side of the candidate was presidential. “He managed to, in a way, be all things to all people, which is very hard to do in politics,” Professor Fatton says.

Comeback kid

Martelly was able to reinvent his image thanks, in part, to the people he surrounded himself with, says University of Miami professor and former Haitian journalist Yves Colon.

“He took the advice of a lot of very smart people and that was important,” Professor Colon says.

Martelly hired Madrid-based Ostos & Sola, a consultancy that played an important role in the election of Mexico’s Felipe Calderón. Martelly’s public point man at Ostos & Sola helped run the John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.

They positioned him as the candidate of change. And “Martelly tapped into a very strong desire on the part of the Haitian people who were looking for hope in a candidate, someone who was not a professional politician,” Colon says.

He also had some help along the way. Martelly initially did not qualify for the run-off election. Preliminary results from the first round placed him third and out of the running for the second round.

But after a review of votes by international electoral monitors and heavy international pressure, including a visit by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, President René Préval’s hand-chosen candidate was dropped from the ballot.

Political outsider

That put Martelly in line to face Ms. Manigat, a Sorbonne-educated academic and wife of former President Leslie Manigat. While politically she and her 20-years-younger opponent were both conservative, they could not have been more different stylistically.

Now that Martelly appears to be going from candidate to president, the focus will become his agenda.

In a November interview with The Monitor, Martelly said he wants to focus on getting earthquake victims out of tent cities and on investing in the agricultural sector.

But moving those proposals through parliament will take negotiating, Colon says. A downside of being a political outsider is the lack of connections within the political establishment.

“He doesn’t have any support in parliament. Not in the senate or in the lower house,” he says. “And he does not have any experience managing anything but a band. Let’s hope that he again surrounds himself with smart people.”

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