As one of Haiti's most famous musicians drives down the two-lane Delmas roadway in Port-au-Prince, sporadic calls in the street grow into a trembling chant in Haitian Creole: "Pwezidan, Pwezidan" "President, President." But the young men shouting the words are not calling to Wyclef Jean, who just announced he was running for President of Haiti. They were greeting Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, the bad boy of the Haitian musical genre kompa who just happens to want to be the country's President too.
Better known for the eyebrow-raising lyrics (and swearing) and his ability to rouse even the most conservative of Haitian elites to dance on top of tables, Martelly, 49, dressed in a suit on Thursday to submit his paperwork to run for President on the ticket of his party Repons Peyizan, or Countrymen's Response. He acknowledges that comparisons will be made between himself and Jean (who according to the candidacy papers he filed this week is 40 years old, not 37 as his bios previously said). But Martelly says despite being opponents for the presidency, he and Jean are friends. Martelly appeared on Jean's first solo album The Carnival in 1997. But Martelly jokes, "He's global and I'm local." And he says what sets him apart from the rest of the presidential field his friend included is the Haitian people's true affinity for him.
"You need to be loved by the people, cherished by them, trusted by them," Martelly says, shifting fluidly from Creole to English to French. "I'm not running to be President. I'm running to be the citizen who changes things. I want to be the inspirateur" the inspirer.
Martelly never falls short of inspiring attention. On the road to submit his paperwork, his car passes a mob of Jean supporters dressed in T-shirts with Jean's slogan on their chests in bold red letters: "Fas a Fas," or "Face to Face," in Haitian Creole. But after honking his blaring car horn, the crowd quickly recognizes Martelly and changes directions. The group starts pouncing on Martelly's car chanting, "We will die with you," perhaps a sign of Haiti's mercurial electorate. Half the population of about 9 million is under 25. "I will follow whoever has the most support," says Ricardo Priville, 29, dressed in a Jean T-shirt but reaching for Martelly as the star exits his car.
Martelly is also being supported by Jean's former Fugees band member Pras Michel. Although Michel, 37, insists he has no political ambitions, he says he was the one who provoked Martelly into considering a presidential run after the Jan. 12 earthquake. Michel admits Martelly is the underdog financially in the race to the National Palace, but he argues that Martelly connects to the Haitian people like no one else. "Can [Wyclef] galvanize the country the way Michel [Martelly] can? I don't think so," he says. "Wyclef is really an American. He hasn't been part of the [Haitian] society."
Michel says Jean's departure from Haiti at the age of 9 and his upbringing in Brooklyn have left him unable to fully engage with the Haitian people. Also, says Michel, Jean's inability to speak French, one of Haiti's official languages, puts him at a disadvantage. "I think as President you should speak the country's language," says Michel. "I love Clef I don't discount what he's done for Haiti. But I just feel Michel [Martelly] is the next President."
As the next President of Haiti, Martelly will have to tackle the cataclysmic aftereffects of the earthquake. Despite the 1.5 million people still homeless, the rubble suffocating the capital and few signs of progress, Martelly says he's ready to lead Haiti. "I want to be the one who guides the people without a coup baton [hit of a stick]," says Martelly.
Critics often point to Martelly's lack of political experience. The musician admits he needs political guidance and says he will be surrounding himself with international experts. "Alone I will fail," says Martelly. "I want to put knowledge in power, not Micky."
Martelly has yet to release a comprehensive recovery plan, but he says it will promote foreign investments and tourism to help bolster the economy in the poorest country of the western hemisphere. Right now, the Nov. 28 election might seem more like Haitian Idol than a presidential race, but Martelly insists he's putting his bad-boy persona to rest and focusing on serious issues. "This is serious business," says Martelly. "The carnival is over."