By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, November 18, 2010; 11:10 PM
In a field crowded with 19 candidates, the front-runners on the Nov. 28 ballot include a charismatic carnival singer who used to perform in drag, a former first lady whose husband was ousted by a military coup and a rich industrialist who boasts of surviving seven assassination attempts.
Politics, Haiti-style, can be chaotic, typically accompanied by violence and fraud. Campaigning consists of televised debates that most Haitians don't watch because they don't have TV sets or electricity and boisterous public rallies that are announced at the last second, for fear that partisans will attack one another.
Haiti could use a good leader now. The new government will work with the Obama administration, international donors and U.N. special envoy Bill Clinton to spend a record-breaking $9 billion pledged to rebuild the shattered state.
"I've not met anybody we can't work with," said U.S. Ambassador Kenneth Merten, who has sat down with the top contenders.
This election is unusual in that none of the candidates is seen as the U.S. favorite. Nor are the opposition politicians running against the United States, though many grumble about the power and arrogance of the charities and nongovernmental agencies that form a kind of parallel state here.
With a week to go before the vote, in which 10 senators and 99 deputies will also be elected, violence has been mostly limited to attacks on U.N. peacekeepers, who some politicians say brought cholera to Haiti. "By Haiti standards, it has been quite peaceful," Merten said.
Haiti's presidential election revolves around personalities rather than parties or issues, and this year the big choice facing voters is whether to continue the path of President Rene Preval by backing his handpicked successor, Jude Celestin, a 48-year-old engineer who ran the state road-building agency, or to go with one of the other 18 candidates vowing change.
Celestin is a media-shy technocrat - reportedly very hardworking - who according to the Miami Herald has had trouble making mortgage and tax payments, defaulting on his Florida properties. There are also questions about transparency and cronyism.
If Preval has done anything, he has brought Haiti relative stability, but recent polling - as well as word on the street - shows many Haitians are frustrated with his below-the-radar leadership style, especially since the earthquake.
"He has forgotten the people. His plan is to stay in power with the election of Celestin, but I don't think the people will be fooled again," said presidential candidate Jean-Henry Ceant, a notary with ties to exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Ceant spoke with The Washington Post before a rally in the northern town of Gonaives.
If elected, Celestin said, he would welcome Aristide back from exile in South Africa, along with the general who led the 1991 coup against Aristide, Raoul Cedras, now living in exile in Panama, and former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, or "Baby Doc," who has expressed a desire to return from France.
The winner will govern from an air-conditioned tent beside the collapsed National Palace and inherit a weak, impoverished government supported by charity and housed in the former U.S. Embassy.
"It takes a special kind of person to run for president in Haiti," said candidate Charles Henri Baker, a wealthy industrialist who promises to be "a job creator."
Baker, who said he has "been the target of seven assassination attempts," has run for high office before; he also had a hand in exiling Aristide.
As for Preval's pick of Celestin, Baker said: "Have you seen the roads in Haiti? The roads are a catastrophe. They last one year, then the rains wash them away. He has no chance of winning any kind of democratic election."
According to polls, another top contender is Mirlande Manigat, 70, a political matriarch, Sorbonne PhD and university rector whose 80-year-old husband, Leslie Manigat, served as president for four months before being ousted by the military in 1988. Haitians admire her for her calm, regal demeanor. But the country's tiny business elite, which controls the economy and much else, is taking a wait-and-see attitude.
The wild card in the race is Michel Martelly, better known as "Sweet Micky," a kompa music superstar whose raunchy act had him performing in drag and dropping his trousers.
"In my youth, I was something of a bad boy," Martelly said in interview as his SUV roared up the hill to a rally in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville. He said he was thrown out of a military academy and did not graduate from college, but he found himself in music. "I am a very popular guy," he said. His face is still plastered on cigarette ads at the airport.
Now he wears crisp suits, has a Washington-based campaign consultant and is a successful businessman. He said he has been thinking about running for president for 15 years.
"Look!" He pointed out the window at a teeming market. "Our people are still drinking dirty water! I could move to Africa, or the States, or live here with my eyes closed. But the people, they must see. . . . We have been getting money from you Americans, our friends, for our whole lives, for 20 or 30 years, and things are worse, and we need more money each year. Why?"
Sweet Micky said he assumed that the Preval regime would try to steal the election. "The power wants to retain power, but the people are willing to fight for their vote," he said. "If the revolution doesn't happen by peaceful means, it will happen eventually," by other means.