When Haiti’s presidential election got under way last summer, the big question was how large a role the nation’s large and disaffected youth vote would play. We now know the answer: Huge. Half of Haiti’s population of 9 million is under the age of 25, and Monday evening, April 4, that cohort’s candidate, flamboyant former Carnival singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly, was called the winner of the March 20 runoff vote. According to preliminary results, Martelly defeated former First Lady Mirlande Manigat 67% to 32%, one of the largest margins of victory ever in a Haiti presidential contest. Official results will be announced Saturday, April 16, but Martelly looks set to be sworn in next month.
But do Haiti’s youth really know the man they just made the next President of a nation still struggling to recover from a massive earthquake that killed 250,000 people last year and that needs sound leadership now more than at perhaps any other moment in its history? It’s easy at first to see why younger voters were drawn to Martelly, 50, a pop star whose brash, street-level rhetoric was a stark contrast to the quieter, pearl-necklaced campaign of Manigat, a 70-year-old constitutional-law professor. Yet many of Martelly’s supporters are also too young to remember the early 1990s, when he was an avid supporter of a brutal military coup that overthrew a democratically elected President. It was also a period when Martelly seemed to have formed the almost megalomaniacal self-image that has many wondering if Haiti has picked a reliable democrat or a reckless demagogue to oversee the reconstruction of the western hemisphere’s poorest country.
Either way, it’s a relief at this point that Haitians have at least elected someone, after muddled results from the chaotic, fraud-riddled first-round vote in November led to postponement of the second round. The campaign started last summer with a crowded field of 19 candidates – which would have been 20 if Haitian-American hip-hop superstar Wyclef Jean, who declared his candidacy in August, hadn’t later been disqualified because of residency rules. Jean was widely expected to galvanize the youth vote, but after his ouster, oddly enough, it seemed to gravitate to Manigat, who led voter polls – and won the first round decisively – largely because even 20-something voters saw her as a trustworthy grand-mère, or grandmother, after two centuries of dismal male rule.
But even as Manigat emerged atop the November balloting, it was apparent that Haiti’s younger voters were dissatisfied with her somewhat aloof style – she rarely if ever dropped French to speak the more native Creole in her campaign – and were flocking to Martelly. His supporters took to the streets, often violently, when the government claimed – fraudulently, say critics – that its candidate, Jude Célestin, would face Manigat in the runoff even though international election observers were certain it was Martelly who’d finished second in November. When President René Préval, a focus of antigovernment anger for his feckless administration, finally agreed to drop Célestin from the running, Martelly surged ahead in the polls, especially after his friend Jean endorsed him.
The question now is whether “Tet Kale,” or bald head, as his supporters also call him, can rouse Haiti’s sluggish postquake recovery – picking up the pace of rubble removal, for starters – the way he electrified young Haitians. Can the showman be a statesman? During his campaign he pledged, as Manigat did, to revive Haiti’s agriculture and rein in the foreign-aid NGOs that act like a parallel government in Haiti. But he’ll have to work more effectively with the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, co-headed by former U.S. President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, and the international donor countries that have yet to open their wallets widely enough to get reconstruction moving.
As a singer, Martelly could be an innovative kompa artist; he was more often a crude clown, known for vulgar lyrics demeaning women and for dropping his pants onstage. As a presidential candidate, he got a business-suited makeover, but on the stump he still sometimes betrayed a soft spot for the kind of authoritarian rule that gripped Haiti not just in the 1990s but during the ruthless dictatorships of the Duvalier dynasty, which lasted from 1957 to 1986, and he had a number of Duvalierists in his campaign. His administrative skills are also in question: last year, he told TIME that he was less interested in being a manager than being a grandiose “inspirer.”
Just as troubling was the often thuggish tone of backers like fellow rapper Pras Michel, who shortly before the runoff warned that Martelly supporters “will burn the country if Martelly is not [elected] President on March 20.” Martelly wisely distanced himself from those remarks – but to many Haitians and foreigners alike, he still needs to prove that the nation’s passionate youth elected a responsible adult.