The streets of Port-au-Prince erupted in jubilation on Monday, April 4, when the Haitian Provisional Electoral Council declared Michel Martelly to be the preliminary winner of the presidential runoff election.
Martelly sailed to victory following the March 20 runoff vote, riding a wave of voter discontent with the performance of current President Rene Preval. The flashy, controversial pop star turned politician captured 67.6 percent of the vote in a sound defeat of opponent Mirlande Manigat, who collected 31.5 percent. While the official results will not be verified until April 20, Martelly’s victory merits the congratulations and cautious support of the Obama Administration.
Martelly, 50, affectionately nicknamed “Bald Head” by his supporters, did an excellent job revamping his public image to run a successful campaign. The son of an oil company executive, he benefited from a prestigious education before emerging as a successful musician. Not long ago, he was best known for cursing onstage and performing in drag. Last year, he was able to channel that popularity and energy into reinventing himself as a political reformer ready to take on the status quo.
After the election commission offices announced Martelly’s victory on Monday, his supporters filled the streets with dancing and fireworks. But Martelly’s position as Haiti’s 44th president is not effectively solidified until the electoral council’s official announcement on April 16. In the interim, 70-year-old opponent Manigat is likely to appeal the preliminary results, having already accused Electoral Council President Gaillot Dorsinvil of influencing the outcome before Monday’s announcement.
An even more daunting challenge for Martelly, given the current political atmosphere, will be following through on campaign promises. In celebration of Martelly’s preliminary victory, his supporters ran in front of election headquarters, singing “Martelly, the country is for you. Do what you like with it.’’ The Haitian people have given Martelly a “mandate to now change their lives,” he declared in an interview following the announcement.
Martelly ran on a platform that promises to streamline delivery of humanitarian aid, reform education, boost agricultural production, and restore the Haitian military. But he will likely face opposition from Haitian elites in restoring the military. He will also have to work with a parliament that is still controlled by Preval’s ruling party. Only 23 percent of Haiti’s 4.7 million people actually voted, leaving the actual extent of his popularity far less certain than election numbers would indicate. Martelly must also learn quickly to work with the U.S., the U.N., and other international donors and NGOs.
Whether or not Martelly can effectively address Haiti’s most pressing problems is an open question. For the moment, he is still a political wild card, having never held political office before. Nevertheless, at this point the Obama Administration and Congress should prepare to work with Martelly to help steer Haiti onto a more stable, less corrupt, and more prosperous path.
Ashley Mosteller is a member of the Young Leaders Program at the Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please visit: http://www.heritage.org/about/departments/ylp.cfm