Former first lady and presidential candidate Mirlande Manigat has written several books over her professional career, including her 2002 publication, Etre Femme in Haiti Hier et Aujourdhui that explored the evolution of women in Haitian society throughout its history. Her counterpart, Michel Martelly, spent the latter half of his 49 years writing an interesting chapter of Haitian culture through his music, most importantly, by bridging the gap between “classical Kompa”—ethnic Haitian music—and the “nouvelle generation Kompa” of the 1980s. As the two candidates travel the country ahead of the second round run-off generating excitement and accumulating votes, it is ironical their fiercest opponent is not each other.
The increased competitiveness of the run-off has baffled academia and political communities prompting scholars to compile lists of characterizations depicting Martelly as an unqualified, irrational candidate. Martelly had alarming deficiencies in education, statesmanship, and principles of morality; hence, should not have even passed the first round, let alone seriously challenging Manigat for every vote in the second round, they reasoned. Although not misplaced, those pointed criticisms revealed a veil of ignorance in academia. They have grossly underestimated Martelly’s enormous popularity, his ability to excite fans as an accomplished entertainer and the electorate’s fatigue of the political elite’s abysmal failures.
Sympathizers of the Martelly bandwagon have expressed in a common, frustrating tone: “We have tried intellectuals from academia since inception and they have produced absolutely nothing, it’s time to take a chance on the unconventional,” a rationale that is not misplaced either. Evidently, that segment of the population has lost faith in the intellectuals and their leadership abilities, indicating a hunger for some pragmatic leadership. Therefore, these fans have not only acknowledged Martelly’s shortcomings, but have also embraced them in the name of change.
Calling Martelly unorthodox or irrational is by no mean an exaggeration. Far from being a conformist, the popular singer had never placed morality and conventional wisdom at the forefront of his agenda nor had me made any effort to hide it. Consequently, he has struggled to establish the difference between “Sweet Micky” the entertainer who takes his pants off on stage to entertain his fans and Michel Martelly, the candidate who vows pragmatism and radical changes in the country’s political structure. As he staked his claim to the presidency, the past that brought him so much fame has constituted, thus far, his steepest challenge.
His carefree attitude, open admission of illicit drug use, sexually explicit recordings, indecent exposures on stage and attacks on education have provided his opponents plenty of ammunitions to motivate defectors whom have complained: “We [Haiti] are so bad now, anybody thinks he/she can be president, even Micky.” This has in fact been the recurring theme in Manigat’s campaign. “Vote morality,” would invoke the former first lady struggling with her own demons.
Her opponents perceive the Sorbonne-educate, PhD scholar, author and educator as the face of academia, a stoic reminder of the Haitian political élite and everything that has gone wrong with the country over the past two centuries. Nevertheless, those perceptions have not been her toughest challenge. She could easily crush the competition had she been able to overcome inherent gender-based inequities inhibiting a significant segment of the electorate. “She is a woman,” many often reasoned, “What could she do when facing tough diplomatic upheavals?” That line of rhetoric is similar to the barrage of ideological deterrence Secretary of State Hillary Clinton faced, in 2008, during her race with President Barrack Obama for the democratic nomination. On the campaign trail, Secretary Clinton often compared herself with male figures to gain the respect of her male constituency and signal her toughness and resolve.
This parallel between Manigat and Clinton illustrates the depth of on Manigat’s challenges. If the gender gap could negatively affect Secretary Clinton in the US, a modeled democracy, its influence would be even more disastrous in Haiti, a country with little History in civil rights and virtually no systematic legislative authority in human rights. If elected, Manigat would become the first woman to run the highest office, a historical accomplishment not welcomed by many.
On the campaign trail, Manigat embraced her femininity and even argued that it was the kind of revolution Haiti necessitated to cause a rupture in the discriminating elitism of the reigning political class. Meanwhile her ability to break the famous glass ceiling remains, to a large extent, in the hands of that important segment of the population who believes that male dominance is a divine authority. Similarly, Martelly’s success depends on his ability to divorce his past and win over voters who feel that immoral leaders are unfit for the presidency.