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A supporter of Haitian presidential candidate, Jude Celestin, participates in a campaign rally for him on November 25, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Haiti is experiencing a cholera epidemic and the possibility of violence as they prepare for their November 28th election. Jude Celestin is one of eighteen candidates for the office and is the current president, Rene Preval's, pick to replace him. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
A supporter of Haitian presidential candidate, Jude Celestin, participates in a campaign rally for him on November 25, 2010 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Haiti is experiencing a cholera epidemic and the possibility of violence as they prepare for their November 28th election. Jude Celestin is one of eighteen candidates for the office and is the current president, Rene Preval's, pick to replace him. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images/Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Haiti heads to the polls Add to ...

One is a wealthy businessman, another a popular singer who likes to perform in drag. Another is a former first lady whose supporters call her "Mom."

When Haitians go to the polls this Sunday for general elections, they will select a new president from a colourful field of 19 candidates. Yet, for the first time in nearly two decades of erratic democracy, there is no clear front-runner.

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Instead, this election has been framed as a referendum on outgoing President René Préval.

The contest will most likely pit Mr. Préval's chosen candidate, Jude Celestin, who runs the state construction agency, against Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old grandmother whose husband Leslie served as interim president for four months in 1988 before he was overthrown in a military coup.

If none of the candidates win more than 50 per cent of the vote, there will be a runoff in January.

The vote is also taking place against a bleak backdrop of cholera just 10 months after an earthquake killed 230,000 people and left 1.3 million others homeless.

Observers warn there is serious potential for violence and fraud, with the names of those killed in the earthquake still on the voter lists.



For the international community, there is also much at stake. Foreign donors have pledged $5.5- billion in aid, but have failed to deliver the majority of it.

These are "perhaps the most important elections in [Haiti's]history," said the International Crisis Group in a recent report.

"The government that emerges will need to manage a major part of the decade of recovery from the worst disaster in the Western hemisphere."



Michel Martelly

Age: 49

Party name: Peasant Response

Q: "Why should anyone take you seriously?"

A: "Because I make the people smile. I have their heart and they trust me. Because of my music. I get down from the stage. I dance with them, I squeeze them, so you know, there's a lot of confidence."

When Michel Martelly takes the stage it's impossible to distinguish between the politician and the performer. Indeed it often seems they are one and the same.

One morning, the kompa music star turned presidential candidate addressed a group of foreign journalists in the stuffy conference room of a downtown hotel from behind a podium, which is about as ritzy as it gets in post-earthquake, cholera-ridden Haiti.

Dressed in an impeccably tailored suit with stovepipe pants and a blue silk tie, Mr. Martelly issued a solemn call for the postponement of the presidential election because "his people were dying around" him.

Not so, however, later that night when "Sweet Mickey" held a raucous midnight rally in Carrefour, a tumbledown district of Port-au-Prince, which, for a brief moment, felt like GlastonburyÖ.

Sweet Mickey sang his greatest hits, thrusting his hips and waving his arms to the music. Throngs of supporters loved every minute.

In this election, Mr. Martelly has emerged as the dark horse candidate. As a political outsider, he boasts he's the only one capable of truly changing the status quo.

No doubt, he would shake things up. As a recording artist, Mr. Martelly has been known to perform in wigs, costumes, diapers and Scottish kilts, occasionally disrobing on stage.

Opponents of the married father of four dismiss him as crazy for running for high office with zero political experience. His campaign, they say, is nothing more than a carnival act.

Among Haitian voters, however, Sweet Mickey is the sentimental favourite. His campaign is gaining traction, particularly amongst the poor.

"I want an artist for president. Everyone else has failed us," said Magalie Morris, a 21-year-old mother who has Sweet Mickey posters strewn around the sweltering shelter where she lives with her five-year-old daughter Sabine.

In an interview, Mr. Martelly credited his "colourful" past to his success in the polls: "The people love it," he confided, leaning in, as if to embrace.

In the landscape of misery that has become his country "Haitian people do not laugh any more. They need that," he lamented.

Mr. Martelly told The Globe he first dreamt of becoming president 15 years ago but reconsidered because of "the stress."

"But I have a new energy," he explained. "I got in because someone called me and proposed."

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