Dozens of supporters straddle motorcycles, bobbing their heads beneath bandannas — hot pink! — that bear the candidate’s name. The beat-heavy dance music that has others swaying and shaking also carries the candidate’s stamp — they’re his songs.
By the time Haitian singer Michel Martelly clambers atop a pickup to speak, the thumping recorded kompa music has lent this mountaintop farm town, bedecked in pink campaign posters, the feel of a street fair.
Not every presidential contender can serve as warm-up act and headliner.
Martelly, known as “Sweet Micky” and long famous for ribald verbal riffs and outrageous, pants-dropping stage antics, wants to be Haiti’s next leader. After legal skirmishing that saw the ruling party candidate booted from the runoff amid fraud allegations, the 50-year-old singer faces off March 20 against Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady who is two decades older.
With not much in the way of politics dividing the two right-of-center candidates, voters may be left to weigh backgrounds and styles, which are as different as those of a lampshade-wearing uncle and tsk-tsking grandmother.
Martelly, a political rookie, is a naughty-boy performer seeking to tap into voters’ desperation by running as a populist outsider.
During a visit the other day to Kenscoff, a pretty town 90 minutes from the capital, Port-au-Prince, he told supporters to be on guard for attempts to rig the vote.
“The battle is just beginning,” Martelly declared. He looked tame in jeans and a Ralph Lauren windbreaker, though his wide-brimmed hat was dyed Day-Glo pink. Campaign posters show him in a dark blazer and tie.
Manigat, 70, a respected constitutional scholar whose husband, Leslie, was president briefly during the late 1980s, pitches herself as the sober choice to face Haiti’s overlapping crises, which include widespread damage from last year’s devastating earthquake, a deadly cholera epidemic and deep and chronic poverty.
While voters often refer to Martelly simply as “Micky,” they call her “Madame Manigat.”
At a rally in an impoverished neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Manigat emphasized education and public safety, and played up that she is a woman. She cast herself as reliable, a motherly figure capable of tough decisions.
Supporters were led in a chant — “Give me my mama!” — as marijuana smoke wafted occasionally from the crowd. Manigat, wearing a blouse of oversized paisley and her gray hair tucked into a bun, gazed from the stage with a kindly smile.
The two candidates head into the runoff after a controversial first round marred by disarray, fraud and low voter turnout. Election officials hope to prevent a repeat of the chaos by hiring and training thousands of poll workers and opening a round-the-clock hot line to help the country’s 4.6 million registered voters find polling stations.
“I think we will have a calm election day,” said Pierre-Louis Opont, director general of the Provisional Electoral Council, which runs the elections. Opont predicted, though, that whoever loses probably won’t go quietly.
Manigat got the most votes of 19 candidates during the first round. Martelly placed third, but was allowed into the runoff last month after the Organization of American States concluded that the second-place finisher, Jude Celestin, had edged him out because of fraud.
It remains to be seen if voters turn out for an election that does not include Haiti’s ruling party or the leftist party of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Aristide’s Miami-based lawyer, Ira Kurzban, has derided the race as being like a presidential contest between “an unpopular Republican and an unpopular ‘tea party’ candidate, with no Democrat allowed to compete.”
If turnout is low, analysts say, the winner could lack a solid mandate and thus have limited clout in dealing with the international community, which plans to pump $10 billion into Haiti’s earthquake reconstruction.
The possibility of Aristide’s return from exile adds another wild card in a nation with a long history of election-related disturbances. One official indicated privately that a delay in the balloting was not out of the question if the controversial former president returned, stoking unrest.
The electoral commission’s ruling to put Martelly into the runoff, after noisy street protests by his supporters, carried a jolt of momentum that may make him the man to beat.
Martelly was quickly endorsed by hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, who is popular among young Haitians but couldn’t launch his own candidacy because of residency requirements.
Martelly, who is being advised by a Spanish consultant who helped get Felipe Calderon elected president of Mexico in 2006, is reaching out to voters through new media, such as Facebook and Twitter.
“He’s the candidate of the young,” said Madeline Auguste, who recently turned 18 and plans to cast her first vote for Martelly.
Some Haitians are queasy over Martelly’s reputed ties to Haiti’s extreme right wing, which he openly praised during the coup that ousted the leftist Aristide in the early 1990s.
After former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier returned from exile in January, Martelly said he would make him an advisor. (He later said Duvalier would first have to face justice for alleged crimes committed during his 15-year reign.) Martelly has called for restoring Haiti’s military, which once played a kingmaker role but was disbanded in 1995 after taking part in a series of coups.
Manigat, a Sorbonne-trained scholar who is vice rector of a private university in Port-au-Prince, has never strayed far from Haitian politics. But she, too, has sought to play the populist, saying Haiti shouldn’t take a back seat to international donors.
“She is much more of a traditional conservative in terms of rule of law, very nationalistic, very anti-Duvalier,” said Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group in Washington, D.C.
Although Manigat lacks Martelly’s star power, she may profit from voter unease with his raffish image, especially in the conservative countryside. Even many younger voters say Manigat has credentials to be president that Martelly lacks.
“You don’t vote for someone because you like his music,” said Ronald Etienne, 30, who lost his home in Port-au-Prince during the earthquake.
Fritz Gustave, on hand to catch Martelly in Kenscoff, disagreed.
“The ones in power before with all the experience in the world — what good did they do? How did they help us?” asked Gustave, 51. “We’re willing to take a chance with Micky Martelly.”