Haiti's Presidential Election Plays Out on a Crowded Political Stage

While there were only two candidates, many more players continue to vie for influence in Haitian politics

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Supporters of presidential candidate Michel Martelly gather in Port-Au-Prince. Allyn Gaestel.

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- While the world looked east this past week, Haiti looked up. The country held its first ever run-off presidential election this weekend and instead of a pool of candidates vying for support -- there were 19 this past November -- there were just two: Michel Martelly, a former Kompa singer and self-proclaimed populist with right wing allies faced off against Mirlande Manigat a former four-month-long first lady, university professor, and administrator. Yet, while there were only two candidates, there is still a convergence of egos in Haitian politics, more crowded and pronounced than before.

Haiti is a land of mountains -- steep climbs and steep drops punctuate the landscape. The same could be said for its politics. Like a seesaw, leaders rise and fall. Initially lauded as saviors, they often end up reviled. Voters cling to far-reaching campaign promises, then grow frustrated as their lives remain the same, or worsen. With poverty and unemployment endemic, placing faith in a figure is one survival mechanism. Maybe this one, maybe this time, many hope, something can change. Politicians cater to this desperation, making a point to walk through impoverished neighborhoods, that at other times they speed past in their tinted SUVs.

On Wednesday the second presidential debate was cancelled when Martelly refused to show and Manigat held a press conference in its place. She called herself "honest" and "responsible" and warned of a growing "pink militia" and the seeds of dictatorship in Martelly's pink-themed campaign.

On Thursday Martelly held a concert in the central plaza outside the palace, featuring performances from Haitian hip hop star Black Alex, along with Americans Wyclef Jean and Busta Rhymes. The evening ended with fireworks exploding and sparkling over the tent city that still dominates the central square.

On Friday -- the last day of official campaigning -- the first democratically elected president of Haiti Jean-Bertrand Aristide (twice-elected, twice-deposed) ended seven years of exile. aristide house crowd.jpgThe calls for his return, and his own increased urgency and pressure grew after former "president-for-life" Jean-Claude Duvalier made a surprise return from 25 years of exile in January. While he was greeted with his own swarms of supporters, he is now facing trial for embezzlement and human rights abuses under his regime.

Aristide arrived after telling Democracy Now en route that the Haitian people will be happy their "dream will be fulfilled." Thousands marched and danced in the streets and at least a thousand people clambered over the walls to his compound, climbed trees, and swarmed his car to watch him enter his home. As I pushed through the crowd one young man grabbed my arm, saying, "He's like god to me."

Meanwhile unpopular president René Preval is biding his time during his last months in office. His original end date, February 7, was extended under emergency law last year.

On Sunday crowds swarmed the voting center where Martelly voted, and he enjoyed one last chance to clamber atop a truck and dance and wave to his followers. He mouthed, "Go vote!" to his supporters, as they waved pink cards and placards.

Despite irregularities in Port-au-Prince, where numerous offices opened late, and some isolated instances of violence throughout the country, including two shootings and several arrests, the voting passed with relative calm. Though perhaps anything would seem calm next to the chaos of the first round which stalled midday as 12 candidates called for cancellation in the face of massive fraud, and a raucous march descended down Port-au-Prince's boulevards.

Now the egos, or at least the candidates, have to sit and wait. The initial electoral results aren't due until March 31, and political demonstrations are illegal. Some Haitians are waiting too, though others are happy for the respite. "After this weekend we can be normal again" said Veronique Dessius, a 25-year-old student, on Friday.

For while all these leaders vie for popularity by promising to change lives, many have lost faith. A simple, poignant statement was repeated by several voters sitting out the election on Sunday: "I don't believe."

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Allyn Gaestel is a freelance journalist based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, who writes on international politics, social issues, and human rights. She is a former United Nations correspondent and National Press Foundation Fellow.

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