Haitian pop star turned leader faces high expectations

PORT-AU-PRINCE/MIAMI Sat May 14, 2011 1:04am IST

A supporter waiting for the return of President-elect Michel Martelly holds a plaque bearing his likeness outside the airport in Port-au-Prince April 25, 2011. REUTERS/Swoan Parker/Files

A supporter waiting for the return of President-elect Michel Martelly holds a plaque bearing his likeness outside the airport in Port-au-Prince April 25, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Swoan Parker/Files

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PORT-AU-PRINCE/MIAMI (Reuters) - Haiti's pop star turned president Michel Martelly takes office on Saturday, riding the high but volatile hopes of a poor, calamity-stricken population desperate for a chance of a better life.

Managing these expectations at home and abroad will be the biggest challenge confronting Martelly, a 50-year-old extrovert entertainer without government experience who until now was more used to winning over audiences with songs and antics.

The charismatic, shaven-headed performer, who replaces outgoing leader Rene Preval, used his communication talents and image as a political outsider to beat a politically much more experienced rival in Haiti's election run-off.

He has promised to drag Haiti, ravaged by last year's earthquake, up from the bottom rungs of world development rankings and to set it on a path of stability, reconstruction and growth.

"He gained strong support from among the disaffected urban youth population by making promises it will be difficult to keep. Those youth will be looking for something to happen quickly," said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert and director of the Haiti Program at Trinity University in Washington.

With hundreds of thousands of destitute survivors of the catastrophic earthquake clamoring for homes and jobs, and a deadly cholera epidemic threatening to revive again, the pressure on Martelly for immediate action is huge.

But the star of Haiti's catchy Konpa carnival music inherits a chronically weak state, long undermined by corruption and political cronyism, and a civil service whose ranks were decimated by the quake.

"Building a functioning government has been a challenge in Haiti since the fall of the Duvalier dictatorship (in 1986). That would be difficult for any president," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research think tank.

"Sweet Micky" prides himself on his direct link with the people. But he will have to negotiate with a parliament dominated by deputies and senators of Preval's outgoing INITE coalition, whose presidential candidate was rejected by voters and subsequently forced out of the election race by U.S.-led international pressure amid fraud charges.

"He will need to show some political skills in putting together deals and making agreements with other parties, especially INITE," said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington.

AID AND SECURITY

The international community, led by the United States and with more than 12,000 U.N. peacekeepers in Haiti, steered the recent elections through turbulent allegations of vote rigging and outbreaks of violent unrest. It seems well disposed to support Martelly in his daunting reconstruction task.

"There is still a lot of good will towards Haiti in the international community and everyone wants Martelly to succeed, but there is also a measure of fatigue," Shifter said.

Since two thirds of the government's budget is dependent on external donors, foreign aid will be essential for the effective functioning of Martelly's administration.

Aid promised by donors, who pledged more than $10 billion in the wave of solidarity immediately following the quake, has been slow in materializing, and the outgoing top U.N. official in Haiti, Edmond Mulet, this week appealed to donors to ramp up delivery of pledged recovery funds.

Martelly has promised to work to attract local and foreign entrepreneurs to invest in infrastructure and tourism projects, for example by having the state intervene to settle obstructive land disputes by taking over the land and compensating owners.

In a poor country notorious for political upheavals and sporadic violence, maintaining security is a key factor in guaranteeing future stability for recovery and investment.

U.N. peacekeepers fulfil that role now, backing a local police which is being expanded and trained. But the U.N. presence is seen as an "occupation force" by critics, a hostility increased when U.N. soldiers from Nepal were accused last year of bringing cholera to Haiti.

Martelly has proposed the restoration of the Haitian army, an institution accused of many past abuses, which was disbanded by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in the mid-1990s.

The U.N.'s Mulet says he supports a Haitian "security force" to complement the police, but says the international community would have to equip and train the body before it replaced U.N. peacekeepers, and this could take several years.

The army issue could be contentious both at home and abroad. "If he brings back the army, he may lose some support, especially in the U.S. Congress," said Weisbrot.

In Haiti, opinions seem mixed. "You need an army to protect national sovereignty. Just imagine if the U.N. troops were not in Haiti during the earthquake, we would have been in a bigger mess," said Port-au-Prince resident Karel Devarieux.

University student Ernst Louis Mauger, 29, disagreed: "I cannot believe that people are talking about reinstating the military. That is crazy! How can a responsible government take the meager resources of the state to spend on an army while people are dying of hunger"

(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Kieran Murray)

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