Haiti choosing president amid uncertainty, anger

4:35 PM, Mar 20, 2011   |    comments
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) - One candidate is a musician with a bad-boy past. The other is a former first lady with a long political resume. Haiti's voters will choose one of them Sunday to lead a country where anger with the government runs deep and nearly a million people are living on the streets.

The election, already delayed by a political crisis, is also clouded with uncertainty over the return of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a popular but divisive figure whose mere presence was considered by the U.S. government and others as a possible threat to the vote.

Mirlande Manigat, the former first lady, and Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a star of Haitian compas music, emerged as the top two finishers in a first-round vote in November with 18 candidates that was marred by fraud and disorganization.

One of Martelly's most high-profile supporters, hip-hop star Wyclef Jean - himself a would-be candidate until officials disqualified him - was treated at a hospital for a gunshot wound to his hand late Saturday, a spokesman said. The details surrounding the shooting were unclear.

Lines formed before dawn Sunday outside polling stations as many people sought to cast ballots before going to church. As usual in Haiti, many polling stations opened late and workers could be seen setting up past the scheduled 6 a.m. start time.

Enso Jodin, a 36-year-old construction worker, was among the early risers in Petionville, in the hills above downtown Port-au-Prince. He wouldn't say which candidate had his support, expressing only frustration with the current government.

"We're here to change our country so that our kids can go to school and people can get out from under the tents," Jodin said.

Whoever wins will face major challenges, including a Senate and Chamber of Deputies controlled by the party of outgoing President Rene Preval, who was barred by the constitution from running for re-election. They may also face a surge in cholera once the rainy season starts and anger over the fact that 800,000 people are still in what were once optimistically labeled "temporary settlement camps" after the January 2010 earthquake.

The earthquake has also made the election complicated. Many traditional polling places were destroyed and displaced victims of the disaster often live far from their original neighborhoods. Some people struggled to find their polling station despite a telephone hotline set up to field questions.

Gilot Jean Oldare, a 33-year-old unemployed man, said neither candidate deserved his vote.

"We're going to end up electing people who will just repeat the same broken promises," said Oldare, who lives in a tent in the Delmas section of the capital.

The two candidates have similar agendas, promising to make education universal in a country where only half the children attend school, to build homes and to foster economic growth. Both have said they want to restore Haiti's armed forces, eliminated by Aristide in 1995 after a long history of abuses.

Their backgrounds could not be more distinct: Manigat is a 70-year-old university administrator and former senator; Martelly is a 50-year-old pop star who has no college degree and a history of crude onstage antics.

In the closing days of the campaign, Martelly drew larger crowds - though his popularity as a musician could have boosted attendance. His supporters also seemed more enthusiastic. Alfred Vilaire, 29, said he shaved his head to match the candidate, whose Creole slogan translates as "the bald head."

"If you look at my head you can see who I voted for," Vilaire said. "The traditional politics ... we want to chase them away. We see more of a change in Martelly."

Some view the musician's outsider status as an attribute in a country where the government has failed to provide basic services.

"We want to start with somebody who's new, somebody who hasn't been in politics before," said Robenson Naval, a 34-year-old unemployed plumber who lives in a camp across from the ruined National Palace. "We've been trashed by the previous political leaders. They took our votes and dragged them in the dirt."

Ebert Cineus, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher, said he was concerned over Martelly's lack of experience.

"Martelly says he will send all children to school for free, but that's an impossible dream," Cineus said. Manigat "is someone who knows how to negotiate."

"She can get the international community to help this country change."

What remains a mystery is what effect, if any, Aristide might have on the race.

The former president, who was ousted in a 2004 rebellion, made a triumphant return from exile Friday - two days before the election, sparking feverish speculation over his motivations and intentions, even though his party was barred from the ballot.

His endorsement, if he offered one, could be a boon for one of the two candidates. If he told followers to boycott the election, it could disrupt the vote and add an influential voice to critics who say it lacks legitimacy. It was not known if he had endorsed anyone or encouraged his supporters to abstain from voting.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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