PORT-AU-PRINCE — With a tiny Haitian flag on the lapel of his gray pin-striped suit, Michel Martelly climbed onto the back tire of his waiting SUV and waved to the waiting crowd.
For a former musician well-known for wearing skirts on stage, Haiti’s president-elect had quickly adapted to his new role. An hour earlier, he called on Haitians to help him usher in a new era.
"I’ve always had the desire to change my country, the passion to change my country. I have tried in my own way, through my musical career and through my social services,’’ Martelly told The Miami Herald. "Finally today, the people, because they already know me, they give me a mandate to now change their lives."
Martelly, 50, embraced his provocative past and exploited the weaknesses of an increasingly unpopular president to cast himself as the anti-establishment choice. It paid off big: election officials announced Monday that he received twice as many votes as former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the presidential runoff.
Now, the popular musician must figure out how to lead a broken nation as he attempts to fill the aspirations of his followers: 20- and 30-somethings who have never been employed and until Monday saw little, if any, hope in their dark future. These next-generation Haitians now dangle pink Martelly bracelets on their wrists while he speaks in simplistic verse — his words sometimes sounding like the average Haitian and take-charge leader.
His rise to the presidency is a story about disillusionment with the status quo, the role of the international community, and the changing Haitian political landscape.
"One of the reasons why there is so much poverty in this country is because all of those who were in charge, truly were not interested in what they were doing,’’ Martelly said. "They did not put Haiti in their list of priorities. I am wondering today if they had ever known — or if they had ever understood — the depth of the misery, the abject poverty that is gnawing at the people.’’
While the Jan. 12, 2010 earthquake devastated Haiti and rolled back the economic gains the country was beginning to enjoy at the end of 2009, Haiti had stagnated socially and economically for decades. The promised democracy dividends of the return of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1994, and the re-election of President René Préval in 2006 never materialized.
"Up until now, I don’t know if the country will change but I believe it’s a good dream with Michel Martelly because this is a big person who is now going to lead the country,’’ said Edouard Jean-Paul, 22, of Petionville who voted for Martelly. "During his campaign, he made a lot of promises. We are waiting to see if they are realized.’’
Haitians wanted change and Martelly was successful in making people believe that he would be capable of bringing that change by tapping into the disillusion.
Along the way, he brought aboard a cross-section of people including foreign consultants, hip hop star Wyclef Jean and high-profile members of the business community. Helping his cause was the international community’s change of heart with Préval after the flawed 2009 legislative elections and Préval’s lack of leadership after the quake. The disunity in Préval’s INITE political party, and its subsequent abandonment of his presidential pick, Jude Célestin, under international pressure also created an opening for Martelly.
"Back in 1990, Haitians made a statement of regaining sovereignty by embracing [anti-foreigner] rhetoric. They would rebuild the country by sweating it out, and stand tall doing it,’’ said Jocelyn McCalla, a Haiti political expert. "Today, they say we can’t do it without the [foreigner].’’
Manigat, the front-runner of the first round, found herself paralyzed during the two-month political standoff.
"After the 7th of December, when the results were contested by the population, not once did Mrs. Manigat make a statement against electoral fraud. And I think that gave a lot of advantage to Mr. Martelly,’’ said Gervais Charles, an attorney for Martelly who defended his fight to stay in the presidential race.
On Tuesday, Martelly sought to reach out to Manigat and "all those who recognized themselves in her.’’
Manigat, 70, has not said whether she will contest the results. She has accused officials of stealing the election from her.
Long before he surprised fans and Haiti’s traditional political class last summer with presidential bid, Martelly had already made a name for himself as someone who used his stature to address the country’s social ills.
But while supporters remembered his socially conscious lyrics, it would be his profanity-laced, alcohol-fused stage persona that had Haitians raising eyebrows.
"The people understood better the difference between Sweet Micky the artist and Michel Martelly the candidate much better than the bourgeoisie population,’’ said Hans Tippenhauer, one of Martelly’s early private sector backers. "The population likes people who can talk to them and talk to important people and foreigners but still treat them as the simple person.’’
With the campaign over, many are now wondering about Martelly’s priorities and how he would govern.
"I will leave in the past the old demons of Haitian politics and I will turn to the future, with all those political forces that will choose to put Haiti first,’’ he said. "My presidency will be a guardian of institutions but, first and foremost, I will make sure those institutions work properly and that they take their responsibilities and allow for my promises to become realities in terms of job creation, access to education, access to health and justice for all.’’
In the Herald interview, he offered few specifics about "the little projects’’ he plans to launch during his first 100 days. Establishing security and naming judges are top priorities, he said.
Michel Eric Gaillard, a Port-au-Prince political analyst, said Martelly’s win is a chance for Haiti to turn a page.
"He should make sure his political capital grows instead of shrinking,’’ he said. "Today, Haiti has a chance for reform and the people expect a string of positive reforms for the country. He has to come with a strong message that his government is going to be accountable, transparent and it is not his friends who are going to benefit.’’