Published: March 20, 2011
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haitian voters went to the polls Sunday to choose as their new president either a bawdy Carnival singer running as a populist or a former first lady rooted in the establishment, in a runoff stirred by political crisis and the return of a popular former president from exile on Friday.
With the atmosphere tense and a long history of political violence here word came that the Haitian-American pop star Wyclef Jean, a supporter of the singer-turned-candidate Michel Martelly, was treated for a gunshot wound to his hand late Saturday. The circumstances were unclear, and the police had not confirmed the report. But the singer’s Tweeter feed, signed by “management,” said: “We have spoken to Wyclef, he is O.K.”
Already, the country was on edge over the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the former priest of the poor and first democratically elected president, who returned from seven years in exile in South Africa on Friday to a raucous welcome. That left many wondering if his supporters would sit out the election, depressing turnout and throwing the legitimacy of the victor in doubt.
Mr. Aristide denounced the exclusion of his political party from the race when he arrived at the airport but has not made any other public statements.
With Haiti still on its knees after the January 2010 earthquake and a continuing cholera epidemic, both candidates offer similar promises to expand education, streamline the delivery of billions in international aid, and revamp the economy. They raised eyebrows with plans to reinstate the armed forces disbanded by Mr. Aristide in 1995, after he was returned to power by United States troops following a coup in the first of his two terms.
But they offer widely disparate styles, Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady, the mother hen to Mr. Martelly’s rebellious son.
Mr. Martelly, 50, is hoping large crowds of young people at his rallies will help complete his transformation from one of the most popular entertainers here, known as Tèt Kale (bald head) and Sweet Micky, who frequently disrobed on stage and has admitted to past crack cocaine use, into a respected, suit-wearing chief executive.
Ms. Manigat, 70, who was the top vote-getter in the first round in November, has portrayed herself as the adult in the race whose background as a college professor and administrator would make her a sober manager of the billions of dollars of international aid pledged to Haiti. Much of that aid has been stalled by donors’ doubts over the current president, René Préval, who is completing a second term and barred from running again.
The runoff was delayed for months after widespread fraud in the first round put Mr. Préval’s choice as successor, Jude Célestin, in the runoff with Ms. Manigat, leading to violent street demonstration and forcing an international investigation that eventually lead to Mr. Célestin leaving the race in favor of Mr. Martelly.
The United States and other nations will have more than 200 observers on hand watching to see if pledged improvements by Haitian election authorities were carried out, including replacing and revising training for poll workers to avoid the chaos and confusion of the first round when many voters were turned away at voting stations.
Still, diplomats said much of the training was done at the last minute and they were much more cautious this time in their optimism that a corner has been turned.
“We hope it is better, but we will see,” said Colin Granderson, who is leading a joint Organization of American States and Caribbean Community election delegation.