By William Booth
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 7:14 PM
Many Haitians sighed with relief Thursday after election officials announced that former first lady Mirlande Manigat will face Michel Martelly, a carnival singer known as "Sweet Micky," in a runoff presidential election next month.
The long-delayed decision by Haiti's electoral council pushed government-backed candidate Jude Celestin out of the running. Celestin, a previously unknown bureaucrat who ran the state road-building agency, was the handpicked successor of sitting President Rene Preval, whose response to last year's disastrous earthquake and management of the slow recovery effort have disappointed many Haitians.
Shops and schools were closed as anxious Haitians braced for the announcement. An analysis of the Nov. 28 vote by the Organization of American States found widespread fraud, missing votes and altered tallies. The group said supporters of all three leading candidates tried to steal votes.
The OAS recommended that the electoral council reverse its preliminary results - which had Celestin finishing second - and stage a runoff between Martelly and Manigat. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton traveled to Haiti on Sunday and pushed the Preval government to accept the OAS conclusions and withdraw its candidate from the second round, set for March 20.
Martelly and Manigat offer voters a real choice in personalities. Manigat is the former first lady, wife of Leslie Manigat, who was president for several months in 1988 before being ousted by the military. Almost always referred to as "Madame Manigat," the 70-year-old law professor cuts a regal, mature figure.
"Sweet Micky," her 49-year-old opponent, is a household name - a carnival performer and kompa music singer whose raunchy songs top the Haitian charts.
In an interview last month, Martelly promised that his administration would be serious and transparent. "I will set a good example," he said. "I have clean hands. We will respect the money and the people."
Martelly promised to begin a campaign to provide free or low-cost education to every Haitian child. Half of the nation's children do not go to school.
The next question is what happens with Preval. Under the constitution, Preval's five-year term is supposed to end Monday. Legislation passed by Preval supporters last year in the Senate would allow him to remain in office until May because his 2006 inauguration was delayed.
Preval could remain in office until a successor is elected. The president has repeatedly said that he wishes to remain in Haiti after his term is over and not flee into exile, as many of his predecessors have done.
If Preval steps down, as many Haitians would like, the Haitian constitution says the highest-ranking member of Haiti's supreme court should serve as a caretaker leader until a new president is sworn in. The court's presidency is currently vacant.
As the election drama unfolds, many projects to help Haiti recover from the earthquake have slowed as donors wait to see whether the country will face more chaos and violence. Diplomats have said Haiti could lose billions of dollars in aid if the Preval government and the electoral council do not not accept the OAS's recommendations.