michel-martelly-mirlande-manigat_web.jpgPORT-AU-PRINCE — The two candidates in Haiti's presidential runoff election have launched their official campaigns providing voters with a sharp contrast in tone and style.

Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor and former first lady, spoke to journalists Feb. 17 on the grounds of an upscale hotel that was leveled in the capital's 2010 earthquake. She discussed her plans to improve education, contain cholera and move hundreds of thousands of Haitians out of encampments where they have been living since the disaster.

Meanwhile, popular singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, the longtime “president of kompa” music and
a pro-military populist, attracted thousands of supporters to the streets of Haiti's second largest city with a carnival-like atmosphere.

People in Cap-Haitien sang and danced in the midday heat to marching bands during breaks from political speeches blaring from loudspeakers. Martelly was accompanied by Haitian-American hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, an influential figure in Haiti, and other singers popular in this desperately poor country.

The winner of the March 20 ballot will be responsible for trying to govern a nation with widespread joblessness, an army of quake homeless, a lack of basic institutions and a cholera epidemic. The victor will also have to deal with countless groups fighting over the billions of dollars in international aid pledged after the deadly quake.

In a seriously flawed initial election with 19 presidential candidates in November, Manigat outpaced the field but fell well short of the 50 percent needed to win outright.

Controversy erupted when state construction chief Jude Celestin, who was backed by unpopular lame-duck President Rene Preval, was announced as the second-place finisher, edging out Martelly by less than one percent of the vote. In the aftermath, nearly all of Haiti's major cities were shut down by days of protests and rioting.

Earlier this month, Martelly was declared the No. 2 finisher after an international team of experts from the Organization of American States found problems with the vote count.

Meanwhile, as the country prepared for the election, South Africa was helping ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide prepare to return home after nearly seven years in exile, Foreign Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said Feb. 17.

Nkoana-Mashabane did not specify when Aristide might leave South Africa and did not say what has held up his return since the Haitian government granted his request for a new passport earlier this month.

“We are consulting with all interested parties to facilitate his return back home at the appropriate time,” the minister said, adding Aristide had asked to go home.

Aristide, a former priest and Haiti's first democratically elected president, was ousted in a violent rebellion in 2004 and left the country aboard a U.S. plane.

Many at home still see him as a champion of the poor and he has said he would devote himself to education and other development projects following last year's devastating earthquake.

Speculation that Aristide might come back to Haiti soared after ex-dictator Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier made a surprise return in January after nearly 25 years of exile in France.

U.S. officials are among those worried though that Aristide's return could further destabilize the country as it prepared for the presidential runoff.

“We would be concerned if former President Aristide returns to Haiti before the election,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington recently. “It would prove to be an unfortunate distraction to the people of Haiti.”

As the campaign swung into high gear in Port-au-Prince, presidential candidate Manigat told reporters who gathered at the Hotel Montana's property in the hills above the capital that she couldn't be more different from her political opponent.

“The second round is historic, it's a first and it pits two individuals who are not remotely similar,” she said, with a smile. “He knows how to sing but I know how to do many other things that he doesn't know how to do.”

Charte Eschras, 53, a civil engineer, said in Port-au-Prince he believed Manigat was the better choice to lead the country, citing her lengthy experience with the law.

“For this country to move forward, we cannot hand it over to Michel Martelly. He's a simple singer, he has no diploma, no experience with business or public administration. This country would go backward by 10 years,” Eschras said. “Manigat must be the next president.”

Jean Fritznel, an unemployed 30-year-old who spent the afternoon watching youngsters play soccer in the dirt of his Petionville encampment of roughly 3,400 homeless, said he was enthusiastically backing Martelly. He liked that Martelly is a political newcomer.

“We have had experienced politicians running this country and they never accomplish anything. What's bad about being inexperienced in politics? That's probably the best thing for the president to be,” Fritzel said. “I'm very frustrated living here. We need change.”