Image: A U.N. peacekeeper from Jordan guards electoral material in Haiti
Alexandre Meneghini  /  AP
A U.N. peacekeeper from Jordan guards electoral material Saturday at a polling station ahead of the second round of general elections in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which rch 19, 2011. Haiti will hold runoff elections on Sunday.
By
updated 3/19/2011 5:53:08 PM ET 2011-03-19T21:53:08

The choice could not be more distinct — a brash musician versus a matronly former first lady. Yet it's the name that isn't on the ballot that could play a decisive role in Haiti's presidential runoff Sunday.

That name is Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-ousted former president who made a triumphant return from exile two days before the election that will determine who leads Haiti as it struggles to emerge from a political crisis and cholera outbreak while launching a multibillion-dollar earthquake reconstruction effort.

With his arrival, the popular and polarizing Aristide immediately sparked feverish speculation over his motivations and intentions, even though his party was barred from the ballot.

His endorsement, if he offers it, could be a boon for one of the two candidates in the runoff. If he tells his followers to boycott the election, it could disrupt the vote and add an influential voice to critics who say it lacks legitimacy.

For some in Aristide's Family Lavalas party, which electoral officials eliminated over technicalities that supporters say were bogus, there is no option but boycott.

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"The solution isn't the election. The election is the problem because Lavalas was excluded," said Abellard Shiller, a 49-year-old high school teacher who was among the thousands who greeted Aristide when he returned Friday. "We've had election after election, but this country has only gotten worse."

Aristide has stayed silent since a speech at the airport in which he criticized the exclusion of Lavalas, seeming to contradict previous statements from supporters that he would not get involved in politics.

The effect of his presence remains uncertain in a race that largely turns on the personalities of candidates Mirlande Manigat, a university administrator and former first lady, and Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a pop star.

Both candidates have been critical of Aristide in the past. On Saturday, the Manigat campaign claimed the former president subtly endorsed her by alluding to her campaign during his arrival speech.

A Lavalas spokesman, Ansyto Felix, said there was no endorsement.

Challenges ahead
Whoever wins will face major challenges, including a Senate and Chamber of Deputies controlled by the party of outgoing President Rene Preval, barred by the constitution from running for re-election. They may also face a surge in cholera once the rainy season starts and anger over the fact that 800,000 people are still in what were once optimistically labeled "temporary settlement camps" after the January 2010 earthquake.

"Everybody is waiting for these elections to be done and nobody wants to make a move until they are," said Yves Colon, a Haitian-born journalism professor at the University of Miami. "Haitians are looking for someone who can take them out of this hole they're in."

Preliminary results from the Nov. 28 first round of voting showed Martelly wouldn't make the runoff, finishing third in a field of 18 candidates. Young men surged into the streets in protest, setting off nearly three days of riots that shut down the capital. The Organization of American States determined the results were flawed and "Sweet Micky" in fact placed second to Manigat, and Martelly ultimately was put on the runoff ballot.

Haiti's streets have been relatively calm ever since.

The two candidates have similar agendas, promising to make education universal in a country where only half the children attend school, to build homes and to foster economic growth. Both have said they want to restore Haiti's armed forces, eliminated by Aristide in 1995 after a long history of abuses.

Martelly is a first-time politician — and that matters in a country where the government has failed to provide basic services.

"We want to start with somebody who's new, somebody who hasn't been in politics before," said Robenson Naval, a 34-year-old unemployed plumber, living in a camp across from the ruined National Palace. "We've been trashed by the previous political leaders. They took our votes and dragged them in the ground."

Martelly frontrunner
But Ebert Cineus, a 28-year-old elementary school teacher, said Martelly's lack of experience is too much of a risk.

"Martelly says he will send all children to school free, but that's an impossible dream," Cineus said. Manigat "is someone who knows how to negotiate. She can get the international community to help this country change."

Martelly is considered the front-runner since his rallies have been attracting larger crowds — though his popularity as a musician could be boosting attendance.

The 50-year-old father of four is a master of compas, Haitian music with a slowed-down merengue beat. His campaign rallies, sometimes with Haitian-American musician Wyclef Jean at his side, are like concerts.

But past rock star antics have come back to haunt him. He has admitted smoking marijuana and crack cocaine. On stage, he has at times dressed in women's clothes or mooned the audience. His critics point to his lack of a college degree and say he doesn't have the gravitas to be president.

Martelly shrugs off criticism of his past by calling the incidents youthful excesses. He says he has administrative experience from running his charitable foundation and will appoint experts to help run the country.

"In music you want to please your fans," he said. "But sometimes it's very controversial ... In politics you have to be responsible."

Manigat would be Haiti's first elected woman president. She tells voters to call her "mother" or "grandmother" and has fretted about morality. The 70-year-old law professor has been an enduring presence on the political scene ever since her husband, Leslie, became president nearly 25 years ago, serving seven months before the military booted him.

Martelly and other critics lump Manigat, a former senator, into a political system that has failed Haiti. They also point to her Sorbonne doctorate as proof that the Francophone university vice rector is out of touch with the population — though she says that proves she is qualified for the job and committed to education.

"Diplomas, diplomas, diplomas — I have them," she said at a recent news conference. Then she took a swipe at her less educated opponent: "It's not my fault he doesn't have a diploma."

The first results from the runoff are expected March 31.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: A year after quake, Haiti still rebuilding

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  1. A Haitian woman prays with a Bible in her hand during ceremonies to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 12, 2011.The quake flattened much of the capital Port-au-Prince. (Kena Betancur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Haitians hold hands during a ceremony at St. Christophe, where thousands of victims of the 2010 earthquake are buried, in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11. Haiti began two days of remembrance ceremonies in honor of the nearly quarter million people who died in an earthquake. (Hector Retamal / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Haiti President Rene Preval holds a wreath of flowers at a mass grave site at Titanyen, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, on Jan. 11. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Haitian workers celebrate after the inauguration of the reconstructed Hyppolite Iron Market in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11. The historic trading center was originally constructed in the 1890s and has been rebuilt this year after a fire leveled it shortly after the earthquake. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A woman walks past an earthquake-damaged building on Jan. 11 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on the eve of the first anniversary of the earthquake. (Paul Chiasson / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Martina Raymond, 5, center, stands in front of her family tent with neighbors Revdania Henry, 4, left, and Henderson Henry, 2, in a makeshift camp at the Petionville golf club on Jan. 11 in Port-au-Prince. According to UNICEF, more than half of the 4 million children in Haiti still do not attend school. In addition to educational difficulties, Haiti's children also suffer from poor access to basic water, health care and sanitation. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. An aerial view of a tent city in a Port-au-Prince on Jan. 10. (Thony Belizaire / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. A woman walks at a mass grave site at Tituyan, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 11. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Residents stand near an abandoned airplane in the middle of La Piste camp on January 11 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The camp is located on a former military airport and houses approximately 50,000 Haitians displaced by the earthquake. The one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people will be marked on January 12. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Soccer players from Haiti's Zaryen team (in blue) and the national amputee team fight for the ball during a friendly match at the national stadium in Port-au-Prince on Jan.10. Sprinting on their crutches at breakneck speed, the young soccer players who lost legs in Haiti's earthquake last year project a symbol of hope and resilience in a land where so much is broken. (Kena Betancur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Presidential candidate Jude Celestin, center, gestures to supporters during a campaign rally in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Monday, Jan 10. An Organization of American States international monitoring team will recommend on Monday to President Rene Preval that Haiti's government-backed candidate Jude Celestin be eliminated from a presidential runoff election in favor of Michel Martelly, a popular musician who finished a close third in the contested official results, according to a copy of a report obtained by the Associated Press. (Ramon Espinosa / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Students practice a lesson at L'ecole Nationale Filles de Marie (Daughters of Mary National School) near the end of the school day on Jan. 10, 2011 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Catholic school collapsed during the earthquake in 2010, killing 16 nuns, but no students died because they had left for the day. The school has been partially rebuilt and houses 600 students. According to UNICEF, more than half of four million Haitian children still do not attend school. Approximately 5,000 schools were damaged by the earthquake and rebuilding has been crippled by the clearing of rubble and land issues. In addition to educational difficulties, Haiti's children also suffer from inequitable access to basic water, health care and sanitation. Jan. 12 is the one-year anniversary of the Haitian earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A Haitian evangelical parishioner looks up during a mass to remember earthquake victims at national stadium in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. Haiti will this week mark the first anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and destroyed much of capital Port-au-Prince. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Achebelle Debora St. Til, 6, dances at the Festival of Hope, a rally led by Franklin Graham, son of evangelist Billy Graham, at a soccer stadium in downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. (Allison Shelley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. A boy plays in a refuse-clogged canal in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. When the ground shook Haiti a year ago, toppling homes like cards and killing some 200,000 people, world leaders promised quick action to ease the human tragedy and rebuild the country. A year on, the Western Hemisphere's poorest country is still reeling from the earthquake, and the international community's capacity to deliver and sustain aid effectively is being sorely tested. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Haitians stay in a tent erected in a destroyed house in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Orich Florestal, 24, left, and Rosemond Altidon, 22, stand on the edge of their partially destroyed apartment on Jan. 9. (Allison Shelley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A woman prays during services in front of the destroyed Port-au-Prince Cathedral on Jan. 9. Haitians gather for services outside the destroyed cathedral every Sunday. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. People walk on a street in downtown Port-au-Prince on Jan. 9. (Jorge Silva / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. People displaced by the massive 2010 earthquake live in temporary shelters put up by Samaritan's Purse, a charity, on Jan. 8 in Cabaret, Haiti. Hundreds of thousands of people still live in temporary shelters. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. The Presidential Palace is still in ruins as displaced people live in tents in a park across the street almost one year after the massive earthquake on Jan. 8 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Haitians wash clothes and hang them to dry on rebar remnants of a building destroyed by the 2010 earthquake. (Mario Tama / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Parishioners from St. Louis King of France Catholic Church dedicate a cross and a memorial put up in memory of the tens of thousands of people killed in the massive earthquake and buried in the mass grave at Titanyen, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, Haiti. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Velune Noel, 24, lies with her cholera-infected 12-month-old son Peterson Sharmont, on a cot at a Samaritan's Purse cholera treatment center in the Cite Soleil neighborhood of Port-au-Prince on Jan. 8. (Allison Shelley / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. A Haitian man builds a wooden house Jan. 8 next to houses destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince. Reconstruction has barely begun in Haiti a year after its catastrophic earthquake, a leading international charity said on Wednesday in a report sharply critical of a recovery commission led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. People play soccer at the site of earthquake-damaged houses in downtown Port-au-Prince, Haiti, on Jan. 7. (Ramon Espinosa / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Haitians work on rebuilding an iron market building destroyed by the January 2010 earthquake in downtown Port-au-Prince. (Eduardo Munoz / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. A man removes debris from the January 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince on Jan. 6, 2011. (Kena Betancur / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. Image: A Haitian woman prays during ceremonies to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince
    Kena Betancur / Reuters
    Above: Slideshow (28) Haiti : One year after the earthquake
  2. Image:
    Nadav Neuhaus for msnbc.com
    Slideshow (14) One year later, new hope for young amputee
  3. Mike Keefe / The Denver Post, Politicalcartoons.com
    Slideshow (7) Baby Doc returns to Haiti

Video: Historians work to restore Haitian murals

  1. Transcript of: Historians work to restore Haitian murals

    ANN CURRY, anchor: And it only took a matter of seconds for that massive earthquake in Haiti to bring the St. Trinity Cathedral in Port -au-Prince to a pile of rubble. And it will take many more years to rebuild the entire 85-year-old church, but a team from the Smithsonian is now salvaging the cathedral's historic murals. Once considered scandalous for their depictions of common Haitians in biblical scenes when they were painted in the 1940s and '50s, today they are locally adored and a point of pride for their uniquely Haitian retelling of the Bible . And simply just hearing this hammers and -- is making a lot of people in Haiti smile after all they've endured. It is now four minutes past the hour. Let's now go back to Matt.

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Yeah, they have been through an awful lot. Ann , thank you very much .

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