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Aristide’s return looms over Haiti election - by : Pascal Fletcher, Reuters : Friday, March 18, 2011 9:23 AM

vendredi 18 mars 2011 par Administrator

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haitians will vote for president Sunday, choosing between a brash entertainer and a scholarly law professor, but the election is being overshadowed by the expected return from exile of a fiery former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Aristide, who was ousted in a 2004 armed rebellion but still commands a fanatical following among Haiti’s poor, said he was flying home from South Africa despite the United States urging him to hold off until after the election.

"The great day has arrived," Aristide said in Johannesburg Thursday. He was expected to arrive Friday, a homecoming that adds another element of volatility to Haitian politics and could make the next president’s task even more difficult.

Haiti is one of the world’s poorest countries, and reconstruction efforts following an earthquake that killed at least 250,000 people last year are moving slowly. Aristide, 57, is its most popular politician, but also its most divisive.

The election is being closely watched by the United States and other Western donors that have invested heavily in trying to steer the fragile Caribbean state to lasting stability and bankrolling its recovery from the earthquake.

Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly, a carnival music star with no government experience, goes up against opposition matriarch and law professor Mirlande Manigat in Sunday’s vote.

Manigat, 70, won most votes in the first round of voting in November but Martelly, a popular and wealthy 50-year-old star of Haiti’s Konpa carnival music, has taken a lead in polls.

"It’s a big challenge for democracy in Haiti," said Gregory Brandt, president of the Franco-Haitian Chamber of Commerce and an adviser to Manigat. "It’s the first time there is a second round, and the first time there is this contrast" in personalities.

As if the risk of political instability was not already high enough in the Western Hemisphere’s least developed and most volatile country, Aristide’s return adds another unpredictable ingredient to the mix.

"It’s a wild card," said Ambassador Colin Granderson, who heads the Organization of American States/Caribbean Community observer mission to the elections.

The United States, which flew Aristide out of Haiti during the rebellion against him seven years ago in what he termed a "kidnapping", had wanted him to stay away until after Sunday, believing he could destabilize the country.

His critics fear Aristide will try to influence the election and then jump back into politics, but his aides say he plans instead to get involved in education.


Even without the complication of Aristide’s return, Haiti’s electoral officials and foreign aid partners desperately hope the election will not descend into the chaos, unrest and fraud allegations that marred the first round of voting on Nov. 28.

The run-off campaign has generally been calm but Granderson is concerned by a "deterioration of the rhetoric" over the last week, which also saw reports of Manigat rallies being disrupted by stone-throwing supporters of Martelly.

Electoral authorities have intensified a public information offensive to try to avoid the confusion in the first round, when many voters could not find where to cast their ballots.

Martelly shrugs off critics’ claims that past outlandish stage antics like stripping in public and wearing wigs make him unsuitable for president, and he has drawn large crowds in an energized campaign that projects him as a straight-talking man of the people.

"This campaign is not about Mickey Martelly. It’s a campaign to send all of Haiti’s children to school for free," he told cheering supporters at one rally this week. His populist message taps into the impoverished population’s huge, unsatisfied needs in almost every aspect of daily life.

Manigat is a Sorbonne-educated constitutional expert, former senator and wife of former President Leslie Manigat, who was ousted in a coup shortly after his 1988 election.

She portrays Martelly as a dangerously inexperienced novice and has accused his fanatical young followers, who often wear or display the Martelly party color of pink, of attacking her campaign rallies, calling them a "pink militia".

She argues such militias inspired by a populist personality could be the first signs of a dictatorship in the making.

By contrast, Manigat says, she has the background and the experience to be a conciliator of Haiti’s fractious political forces and unite them around the goal of reconstruction.

"We need calm and serenity for these elections," she said, adding it would be preferable if Aristide came home after the vote because his presence could cause "agitation".

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