Haiti votes in presidential runoff

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Monday, March 21, 2011

About one million Haitians remain in squalid, temporary shelters.

Voters in Haiti are going to the polls today to vote for the country's next president. The election follows months of political turmoil after the corrupt first round election in November caused a crisis requiring international intervention.

Haiti is still struggling to recover from the devastating January 2010 earthquake, with about one million people remaining in squalid, temporary shelters and a recent cholera epidemic which threatens to break out again with the return of the rainy season. Observers are hoping the new president will restore enough stability so rebuilding efforts can begin with international help.

In Haiti’s first round of balloting in November, names were missing from voter rolls, ballot boxes were stuffed or trashed, voters were blocked from the precincts by supporters of candidates, among other irregularities. Haitians rioted, plunging the process into chaos that was quelled by the determined efforts of foreign monitors.

Out of the original 19 candidates, two remained after the first round: Mirlande Manigat, age 70, a sedate, reserved university professor and wife of former president Leslie Manigat, and pop star "Sweet Micky" Martelly, age 50, who the The Washington Post described as being "a popular kompa singer [...] famous for dropping his pants on stage, mooning audiences, and dressing in drag — or sometimes a diaper."

However, Martelly has waged an energetic, well financed campaign with pink campaign posters picturing his smiling face and bald head, cultivating a populist image with Haiti’s poor. He has been successful at marketing himself as an unpretentious outsider who will shake up the political system and yank the country out of its paralysis. At the same time, he has courted the upper class with a platform containing pro-business promises and support for the return of the Haitian army.

The sedate personality of Manigat contrasts starkly with that of Martelly. She portrays herself as a dignified, mature mother figure able to nurture Haiti through its troubles.

The determining factor may be the popular former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who returned two days ago to Haiti from South America after seven years in exile. Aristide has not endorsed either candidate, but Aristide supporters, among those Haitians most desperately poor, have voiced support for Manigat. Upon Aristide's arrival, there were banners saying, "My mother is here already. Welcome home Father", according to The Washington Post.

Pierre-Marie Boisson, a private-sector economist in Haiti, sees the candidates as having similar platforms, promising jobs, housing and free education, even if their personal styles are so different. "They have both promised the moon to the voters," he said. He noted that this puts tremendous pressure on the winner to produce results quickly in a world where the price of food and fuel is rising.

As voting concluded, despite some irregularities such as missing ballots and late starts, authorities concluded the voting went well, without the pervasive fraud that marked the November election. Colin Granderson, head of Organization of American States (OAS) observer mission, said the runoff election was a great improvement over the previous one.

The final results will be announced on April 16.