REUTERS - Michel Martelly, a shaven-headed singer and political outsider, won Haiti’s presidential election in a landslide victory that tapped into deep popular desire for change in the poor, earthquake-battered Caribbean state.
Preliminary results announced by the Provisional Electoral Council on Monday gave the 50-year-old entertainer a clear win with nearly 68 percent of the vote, compared with just under 32 percent for his rival, former first lady Mirlande Manigat.
Celebrations erupted in the scruffy capital Port-au-Prince as cheering, jubilant Martelly supporters flooded the streets, singing, waving his portrait and setting off fireworks.
Martelly thanked voters in a brief statement on his Twitter account: “We’ll work for all Haitians. Together we can do it.”
Tense anticipation tinged with fears of violence had led up to the announcement of the results from the March 20 run-off, the first second-round presidential vote ever held in the politically volatile nation, one of the world’s poorest.
“Sweet Micky” Martelly, an iconoclastic entertainer known for his sometimes provocative stage acts, had campaigned on a forceful promise to change the status quo, pledging to break with decades of past corruption and misrule and bring a better life to Haitians struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
“Martelly’s victory implies a rejection of the political class that has both governed and been in the opposition,” said Robert Fatton, Jr., a Haiti expert and professor in the University of Virginia’s Department of Politics.
“Martelly captured the mood of the voters by cleverly using his ‘bad boy’ image to enhance his status as the ultimate ‘outsider’ who symbolized change,” he told Reuters.
Martelly, a star of Haiti’s Konpa carnival music whose onstage antics include wearing wigs and diapers and dropping his trousers, has no previous government experience.
As president, Martelly will face the huge challenge of trying to rebuild a small Caribbean country prostrated in poverty long before an earthquake killed more than 300,000 people and bludgeoned its fragile economy last year. Hundreds of thousands of destitute earthquake victims are still living in squalid tent and tarpaulin camps.
The results are preliminary because they can be subjected to legal challenges which must be dealt with by the electoral council before it can declare them definitive later in April.
‘LITTLE ROOM TO MANEUVER’
To prevent trouble before and after the results were announced, blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers were out patrolling Port-au-Prince and other potential flashpoints. Some stores boarded up windows in anticipation of trouble.
The United Nations and donor governments including the United States, which have pledged billions of dollars in reconstruction funds to Haiti, want the election to produce a stable, legitimate leadership to take charge of the recovery.
The elections are choosing a successor to outgoing President Rene Preval and also new members of the parliament.
The University of Virginia’s Fatton said Haiti’s heavy dependence on foreign assistance to tackle the huge challenge of post-quake recovery could limit Martelly’s ability to radically transform Haiti’s economic and political system.
“He will have to deal with the reality that he will have little room to maneuver as Haiti’s sovereignty is at bay and ... for good or ill he will be thoroughly dependent on outside financial assistance,” Fatton said.
“The question for Martelly is whether he can renegotiate Haiti’s dependence on better terms,” he added.
After a chaotic first round of elections on Nov. 28 marred by unrest and fraud allegations, the run-off last month passed off generally peacefully.
But in a country where calm streets can become transformed in seconds into battlegrounds of protesters and flaming tires, rumors had been swirling about threats to “burn the nation” and about machetes—the long, curved cutlasses that are a traditional weapon of Haitians—selling out at stores.
The international community has worked to keep the Haitian elections on track through its U.N. peacekeeping mission and electoral observers and experts from the OAS and Caricom.
Backed by diplomatic pressure from Washington, these experts persuaded Haitian authorities to revise the disputed first round results to put Martelly—originally placed third -- in the March run-off with Manigat, at the expense of a government-backed candidate dropped due to alleged fraud.
“I think what the international community wants is basically political stability,” Fatton said.
With the INITE party of outgoing President Preval expected to remain strong in parliament, the new Haitian leader will also have to manage a fractious political situation.
This has been stirred up further by the separate return from exile this year of two former presidents, both previously ousted by revolts—left-wing populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide and former dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier.