Former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was poised to return to his homeland on Friday after seven years of exile, a stunning and potentially destabilizing twist that comes only 48 hours before a vote to pick the country's next president.
The populist ex-priest, a divisive figure who was ousted from office in 2004, boarded a private jet in Johannesburg on Thursday.
"The great day has arrived, the day to say goodbye before returning home," he said in Zulu at a small airport outside Johannesburg, accompanied by his wife and two daughters.
He said he was "delighted" to be returning home. "In Haiti, they are also very happy because they were waiting for us and they have wanted for us to be back home as soon as possible. It's normal their dream will be fulfilled."
Mr. Aristide is expected to land in Port-au-Prince by noon on Friday, with thousands on hand to greet him.
He is described as a possible spoiler in Sunday's runoff vote to choose a government for Haiti, which is struggling to rebuild from an earthquake that left about 300,000 people dead and more than a million living in tents.
Sunday's contest pits former first lady and constitutional scholar Mirlande Manigat against popular singer Michel Martelly, but there has already been evidence of support for Mr. Aristide, with rallies in the Haitian capital.
Mr. Aristide is a charismatic figure who still has the backing of large swaths of the electorate, who view him as a champion of the poor. But critics have accused him of a tainted legacy marked by corruption and violence against opponents.
"He's a polarizing figure," said Philip Oxhorn, a political scientist at McGill University in Montreal and director of the Institute for the Study of International Development. "And that can't be good. Why is he coming back now? Why throw a wrench into the works when the works are already fragile, so close to the election?"
In a country where surprises seem to succeed each other, Mr. Aristide is the second controversial Haitian leader to reappear in his country in just over two months; former dictator Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier landed in Port-au-Prince in January.
But Mr. Aristide is seen as posing an even great risk for turmoil, a fact underscored by U.S. President Barack Obama's decision to personally intervene in trying to delay the former leader's return, saying the Haitian people deserve to pick their next government in "peaceful, free and fair" elections.
The first round of the presidential vote in November was marred by charges of fraud, disorganization and voter intimidation.
Aides to Mr. Aristide say he chose to return before the election because he feared Sunday's winner might reverse the decision to allow his return.
But Philippe Girard, a professor at McNeese State University in Louisiana and author of several books on Haiti, said Mr. Aristide has political ambitions and could seek to present himself as the sole legitimate candidate. Members of Mr. Aristide's former party, Lavalas, say they were unfairly prevented from participating in last November's general election, and have threatened to boycott the vote.
"If he manages to become a candidate, he has major popular support and has a big chance of being elected," Prof. Girard said.
Mr. Aristide, who studied in Montreal for three years in the 1980s, became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1991, but was ousted after seven months. Re-elected in 2000, his second term was marked by violence, economic instability and allegations of corruption and human-rights abuses. In 2004, he was ousted in another coup during a bloody rebellion.
"Some saw him as the first democratically elected president, which he was, but he wasn't Nelson Mandela," Prof. Girard said. "He had a more brutal side.
"He's someone very intelligent and has major support," Prof. Girard said, "but he wasted it in his quest for power for power's sake."Report Typo/Error