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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

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.

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

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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."

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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.

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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."

Exactly who called is the subject of much speculation. Mr. Martelly wouldn't specify beyond saying it was "a group in the [United]States."

"They said, 'We have money. We need a voice. Are you interested?' I said, 'Yes,' " Mr. Martelly demurred.

As it turns out, the mystery group "didn't have a dime." His campaign is currently being financed through unnamed contacts and friends, he maintains.

He says Haiti's dependence on international aid isn't his country's fault, it's the West's.

"You keep on giving us money," he said, placing a hand on his interviewer's knee. "I guess it's no problem that your money's being stolen. It's like you're crazy too."

Mirlande Manigat

Age: 70

Party name: Rally of Progressive National Democrats (RPND)

Q: "How do you respond to those who thing you're too old to run for president?"

A: "My age is my best asset. People see that I have a history that is absolutely clean. At my age, it's too late to be immoral."

Mirlande Manigat arrived at the rally early, in the back seat of a borrowed car. Oddly, the car - not the candidate - was what first caught everyone's attention.

That's because in the frenzied run-up to Sunday's election, the rumour is that Ms. Manigat, a Sorbonne-educated former first lady, has made a secret pact with current President René Préval, who is forbidden from seeking a third term but is still trying to control parliament through his INITE (Unity) party candidates.

Ms. Manigat is openly critical of Mr. Préval's rule, but her opponents accuse her of accepting $8-million (U.S.) and an armoured car in exchange for a secret promise to support INITE's platform should she become president.

"Absolutely it's not true," Ms. Manigat bristled in an interview with The Globe and Mail. The armoured car was, in fact, given to her husband, Leslie Manigat, who served as president for four months in 1988 before being ousted in a military coup.

"As an ex-president, he's entitled to that," she insists in a voice made hoarse by dozens of campaign speeches. Still, she traded her husband's car for a supporter's navy SUV in an attempt to put the rumours to rest.

If she wins, Ms. Manigat would become the first woman ever elected president. Her victory would also sweep the country's chronically fractured centre-left opposition to power.

In a contest firmly dominated by personalities, she has emphasized her gender, portraying herself as the elderly grandmother who will finally solve political bickering and corruption through wisdom and common sense.

Wearing a bright yellow head scarf, gold jewellery and a floral dress, she embraces supporters with a hug, rather than a handshake. Some of them call her "Mom."

"The women think that for so long, men have been running the country and the results have not been very positive so we better give a woman a chance," she explains.

"And You must understand that women represent 52 per cent of the population," she adds before delivering yet another speech at Institut D'Application Pedagogique, a school that was half-shattered by the earthquake, where her message seems to resonate among the schoolchildren dressed in red and white gingham uniforms.

Polls have consistently shown Ms. Manigat holds the edge in this election, with a comfortable lead over Mr. Préval's chosen protégé, Jude CelestineÖ.

Ms. Manigat, who spent part of her life in exile, has some of the best-articulated policies among the candidates, even though observers have dismissed her delivery as uninspiring.

She calls for sweeping educational reforms that would provide better access to education for the poor. She wants to rewrite Haiti's constitution to legalize dual citizenship and lure the diaspora back to help rebuild their broken homeland.

She also wants to reduce her country's stubborn dependence on foreign aid.

"When you accept that your national budget is financed to the tune of 60 per cent by foreign donors, you cannot call yourself independent any more," she said.

Her résumé has drawn inevitable comparisons to that of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Ms. Manigat is quick, however, to cite this difference: "I don't want to be like Hillary. She didn't win."

Charles Henri Baker

Age: 55

Party name: Respect

Q: "Is the colour of your skin an issue in this election?"

A: "It is an issue with the international press because they think I'm a white man who is trying to rule. … With the Haitian people, it's become an advantage. This is what I'm hearing anyways, which offends me."

Charles Henri Baker built his fortune in farming, tobacco and apparel, making him one of the richest men in Haiti.

When we meet, however, in the wrought-iron courtyard of a downtown hotel, he is dressed more casually than his security detail: Faded blue jeans and a blue striped shirt carefully rolled up at the sleeves.

For Mr. Baker, who was born in Port-au-Prince, but attended high school and university in Florida, image is everything.

His light complexion leads outsiders to ponder his identity as a Haitian. His wealth makes others question his loyalty to the poor.

Mr. Baker's got a lot riding on this election. It's his second shot at the presidency having failed in 2006, when his coalition garnered just 8 per cent of the vote.

Polling a strong fifth this time around, things are different: "When the shit hits the fan, I don't run. I'm there. And when someone gets hit, I'm there to pick them up," he says, explaining how he's curried favour with voters.

His critics have hardly melted away. Human rights groups charge him with presiding over a constellation of sweatshops that employ hundreds of Haitians with paltry pay and no benefits, making T-shirts that are later sold at Walmart.

Yet, in the filthy slum of Cité Soleil, which is dotted with shuttered factories, Mr. Baker is stunningly popular. To Haiti's poor, a low-paying job is better than no job at all.

"He tells us humans should not live like this," said Jean Dupuis, an unemployed man who lives in a one-room shack with his wife and five children.

The appeal of placing a businessman in charge of this economically devastated country is undeniable, and holds cross-class resonance.

It's hardly surprising that Mr. Baker has the boldest economic platform of any of the candidates. When you ask him 'What's the plan?' he answers without pause: "Production. National production," he says without pause.

If elected, he vows to spend less time than previous presidents in Washington. "When I go to the U.S. they ask, "Are you coming to milk the cow?' and I say, 'What cow? What milk?' "

Instead, He wants to develop Haitian agriculture: "We have 365 days of growing period where we have fruits and vegetables that we can export. Right now we're wasting about 90 per cent of our mango production because it's not being used," he says.

"Let's make chutney, dried mango, puree, juice to ship to Europe, South America, the U.S., Canada," he continues.

He is disgusted by the foreign aid that currently floats his country, lashing out at Western interference.

"You know what really frustrates me is that with all this help, the international community always seems to back the crooks, thieves and assassins," he says.

"Well, at least they're not backing me, I can tell you that much."

Jean-Henry Ceant

Age: 54

Party name: Renmen Ayiti

Q: "Who do you consider your biggest threat?"

A: "The government of René Préval and the people it has hired to spread the violence."

Jean-Henry CeantÖ has a story he likes to tell, regardless of whether you want to hear it.

Last August, President René Préval invited all of the presidential candidates to the National Palace - or what's left of it - for a series of private meetings.

Mr. Ceant, a tall, magnetic lawyer who speaks in Creole, says he is the only one who refused.

"Because I think President Préval was trying to trick us. I proposed that we meet with everyone together so there would be no secret deals. He refused so I declined," Mr. Ceant recounted during an interview with The Globe and Mail in a sweltering, makeshift cholera clinic next to a children's playground where he planned to hold a rally later that afternoon.

Mr. Ceant, who has cast himself as Mr. Préval's fiercest critic, emphasizes his close ties to exiled president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who remains stunningly popular among Haiti's poor.

If voter sentiment could be measured by graffiti, Mr. Ceant is the winner hands down. A popular slogan spray-painted across the crumbling capital reads: Ceant = Aristide.

That formula has invigorated his campaign in recent weeks. If Mr. Ceant succeeds in pulling off an unlikely victory, he promises sweeping changes to Haiti's political system through elusive compromise.

"Haiti has been living in division. I want to build a country where we can put everybody together, regardless of their political sensibilities," he said abstractly.

More concretely, he wants to create a commission to root out corruption, "which has become a mentality."

"And the first target will be the national palace," he vows.

He also wants to hold a "national consultation" involving all political parties, to create a 40-year plan for his country.

"We can move away from international dependence, gradually," he said with audible hope.

Mr. Ceant also hopes to move earthquake victims out of the tent cities where "they are living like animals," providing them with pre-fabricated houses for which they would pay rent.

"We would give them 30 or 40 years to pay off their houses," he elaborated.

Even more controversially, he promises to repatriate a complicated parade of exiled presidents, including Mr. Aristide, Raoul CedrasÖ, Jean-Claude DuvalierÖ and Henri NamphyÖ.

"I say nobody should live in exile. I think everybody should return home and work together to develop the country," he explained.

"If someone wants to come back to his country, respecting order, I would open up my arms to that person," he continued.

Mr. Ceant's controversial message has earned him some critics. At a campaign rally last week he was stoned and shot at, he says.

In a sense, he believes this is a sign of his success. In Mr. Ceant's Haiti, even his archenemies would find peace, he promised:

"As president I would guarantee that even President Préval would live a good life, freely in his country," he said.

Jude Celestin, 48

Party name: INITE (UNITE)

Q: "Who is Jude Celestin?"

A: "Jude Celestin is a man who is discreet - a man not of the media … What's important to say is he's a hard worker, an investor who invests in Haiti and outside."

Jude Celestin's campaign rally was supposed to begin hours ago, but the candidate known as the "President's man" has yet to show up.

Not that the crowd seemed to mind. Hundreds packed Carrefour Aeroport, a rundown district of the capital for the noisy show that preceded his appearance.

Onstage, there was live music, rowdy dancing in the crowd, and marching bands in the streets. A plane circled overhead, dropping clouds of white flyers that scattered in the air. Then shots were fired and the SWAT team moved in.

Before President René Préval tapped Mr. Celestin as his chosen successor in this election, few Haitians would have recognized him.

The engineer and former head of a state-owned construction agency was relatively anonymous, with no political experience, but a reputation as a workaholic. He is still reclusive, rarely granting interviews.

He is, in many ways, an awkward fit in the spotlight, introducing himself in an October television debate in the third person.

"Jude Celestin is a man who is discreet - a man not of the media," he said. "What's important to say is he's a hard worker, an investor who invests in Haiti and outside."

The divorced father of three grew up in the southeast, in a family of teachers with close ties to the Duvalier family.

His campaign is largely an echo of Mr. Préval's platform. He champions education and has promised to create jobs through investment, but he is short on specifics.

Although his campaign appears to be well-financed, it has also been crippled by scandal.

An investigation by the Miami Herald last month revealed Mr. Celestin, who was educated in Switzerland, had amassed a number of liens and foreclosure problems on one of his properties in South Florida.

His dominance in this campaign is evident in the tent cities and crumbling neighbourhoods of Port-au-Prince, where his yellow and green posters are everywhere.

His slogan reads: "100 per cent for Haiti."

Mr. Préval's blessing has made him the target of virtually every other candidate.

"For him to win he'd have to steal the elections," said Charles Henri Baker, a wealthy industrialist who is running against him.

Michel Martelly, another candidate and popular singer said: "The whole system is corrupt. Préval, his candidate, the government. It's something we have to destroy and rethink."

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About the Author

Sonia Verma writes about foreign affairs for The Globe and Mail. Based in Toronto, she has recently covered economic change in Latin America, revolution in Egypt, and elections in Haiti. Before joining The Globe in 2009, she was based in the Middle East, reporting from across the region for The Times of London and New York Newsday. More

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