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First lady or pop singer? Haiti awaits new leader

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Apr 4 – Haiti should find out on Monday whether former first lady Mirlande Manigat or popular singer Michel Martelly has been elected the new leader of the poor, quake-hit Caribbean nation.

Presidential and legislative elections, originally scheduled for February 2010, were postponed after last year\’s January quake, which flattened Port-au-Prince and other towns at the cost of a staggering 225,000 lives.

More than 14 months on, hundreds of thousands of survivors subsist in squalid tent cities, unemployment is rife and 75 percent of the young population — the average age is 21 — live on less than two dollars a day.

After a perpetual cycle of political upheaval and natural disaster, the country of 10 million desperately needs responsible leadership if it is to set up viable institutions and start dragging people out of poverty.

The international community, which pledged some 10 billion dollars of aid money to help it rebuild after the quake, has been reluctant to untie the purse strings until a peaceful transition of political power occurs.

Prior to Monday\’s preliminary results, the camps of both Martelly, 50, and Manigat, a 70-year-old vying to become Haiti\’s first female elected leader, appeared confident of victory.

Defintive results will not be announced until April 16 as losing candidates can still contest at the end of what has been a long, drawn-out election process tarnished by violence, fraud, delay and mismanagement.

"Doubt, suspense and stress take over as the population readies for the worst," wrote Haitian newspaper Le Nouvelliste on the eve of the poll results.

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November\’s first round descended into farce as most of the 19 candidates demanded a re-run before polls closed, accusing the ruling Unity party, President Rene Preval and the election commission of rigging the vote.

At least five people were killed in December when rioting greeted the news that Martelly had finished third behind ruling party candidate Jude Celestin and would not make the run-off.

After weeks of US-led pressure and a review by international monitors, Martelly was reinstated at the expense of Celestin, who was seen as Preval\’s handpicked successor.

Election squabbles were overshadowed in January by the shock return of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

Duvalier is now under house arrest in the capital facing charges of corruption, embezzlement of public funds and criminal association during a repressive 15-year rule that ended in 1986.

Just three days before the crucial March 20 run-off, Jean-Bertrand Aristide — Haiti\’s first democratically elected leader — returned from exile in South Africa.

It was possible that Aristide, a shantytown priest who rose to power as a champion of Haiti\’s predominantly Catholic poor, could have affected the result if he had endorsed one of the candidates.

As it turned out he honored a commitment not to upset the delicate political balance, but the presence of two giants of Haiti\’s scarred past is a potential powder keg for whoever succeeds Preval.

Manigat was an occupant of the presidential palace, which now lies in ruins, for a few brief months in 1988 before her husband Leslie was ousted by a coup.

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The soft-spoken academic is a seasoned politician, having been elected senator in 1988 and again in 2006 representing the Rally of Progressive National Democrats (RDNP) opposition party she helped found.

Her rival is carnival entertainer Martelly, a political novice who has captured the imagination of Haiti\’s urban youth and has presented himself as the candidate of change.


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