Martelly's election: Shades of populism and authoritarian rule

Patrick SylvainPatrick SylvainOne could consider Michel Joseph Martelly’s recent election a sequel to Graham Greene’s The Comedians.

It seems as though everything in Haiti is either a comedy or tragedy; the political emergence of a popular singer known for his superficial and sexually explicit lyrics is more than anything, akin to a stage comedy, a momentous farce. Michel Martelly, despite his lack of political experience and training/education, is now expected to serve as Haiti’s Head of State, and lead a nation in a perpetual state of crisis, lacking institutions and qualified civil servants.

BHR 4-11BHR 4-11For the past few decades, the derision of ethics, justice, education, and national character could only produce a political candidate that mirrors the ideals of the society at large. Martelly’s ascension to power is a by-product of the society’s ills and entrenched crises, but it is also the repudiation of Préval’s failed presidency and politics of silence that displeased and alienated the already disenfranchised population.

Leading up to the election, much of the population, at least those who voted, carried pictures of Aristide while simultaneously sporting the number “8” (to symbolize Martelly). In any logical realm, those two figures would be incompatible (despite their populist driven campaigns).

As a matter of fact, Aristide and Martelly represent politically antithetical points of view. After all, Martelly openly supported Aristide’s ouster from power in both 1991 and 2004. Also, he is a strong supporter of the re-establishment of the military that Aristide banned from operation. The intersecting point between these two charismatic figures however, is the fact that populism resides strongly in the realm of Haitian popular representative democracy.

The writer Lyonel Trouillot recently remarked: “When voting is offered to people who do not feel that they are citizens, in an atmosphere of old regime, they then vote for ‘disorder’. From Duvalier to Aristide and ending with the election of Michel Martelly, the Haitian Presidency becomes a general state, a free for all.” In a savage state of inequity and abject poverty, a virtual free for all was what empowered the majority of Haiti’s population who voted for Martelly, administering a severe blow to the traditional political class. Trouillot states: “the disorder did not change the social order, it has revealed and exploited the squalid.”

Although Michel Joseph Martelly did sound very presidential during his first prepared national speech, promising to unify the country and do away with sectarian politics, one must also remember that he represents a package that has been tightly made over. The image of the morphed bad-boy-to-politician figure must be sold and projected.

As Martelly emphasized “everyone must get behind [his] project, because [his] project is a national project, it is a project for the nation.” So far, his rhetoric comes with very little specifics, but the sound bites are exquisitely pleasing, especially his mention of a “creation of an inclusive nation.” Ironically, there is now a nation that must be included when Martelly and his financial backers have in the past rejected the very people they are now embracing. Why the shift? What is at stake? Are there puppeteers controlling the popular singer who was once a right wing supporter of paramilitary groups such as FRAPH? Could there be something behind the nudge by the international community for him to assume second place after the first presidential round, and finally be elected as the democratic president of Haiti? It is interesting to know that he has been mandated to lead the country toward recovery along with the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission (IHRC), led by former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Of course, one can look at Martelly in two ways:

Positively. He is notorious for pushing the socio-cultural envelope, as well as for being an ambitious businessman who speaks the language of people. He claims “when there is a leader, the people will follow.” Plus, his intellectual limitations might push him toward achievement, as he could seek to surpass expectations and prove that the traditional power-seekers, the intellectual class in the country, only talks about the people when it is convenient for them. Having already been a millionaire, and comfortably placed above the traditional political class (which translates to being above the customary black color line and also above the middle-class threshold, but associatively below the ruling possessing class), he is in a much better position to mediate power and therefore affect change. Lastly, his affiliation with the military as well as with Duvalierist factions puts him in a milieu where militarism and the security apparatus of the country would not be threatened and might even benefit from his leadership given his emphasis on the rule of law. With security comes an atmosphere conducive to investment and greater economic prosperity.

Negatively. Authoritarian streaks in two recent speeches he delivered, including the call for “war on war” when it comes to the press should be taken seriously. While campaigning in Les Cayes (March 6, 2011), he categorically declared that: “the country will be marching in the right path, where everyone will be placed under order. Justice for everyone and the rope for those who deserve it.” This is interesting, considering the fact that he has often claimed that the “people are with him and will follow their trusted leader.” Haitians should be cautious as his zeal and ambition to succeed might create an authoritative state ala Duvalierism where the supremacy of the state becomes law and the law becomes privatized for the interest of the state. Certainly, the Haitian military will return, but how much of the budget this institution would consume despite the country’s need for health care, education and agriculture, remains unclear. Given the supremacy of the international community in the development strategies and goals under the IHRC, one would have to wonder about the extent to which the country is accelerating further into privatization. After all, the bourgeoisie has not been in direct executive power since 1946 and the International community has been pushing for privatization since 1986.

To project ideals of populism and reinforce symbols used to mirror Aristide while rejecting his politics, Martelly’s core agitating team (Richard Morse and Roro Nelson) employed songs that were associated with Aristide by simply changing the name of the target subject. For example, the rally song “kiyès ki towo a? Se Aristide ki towo a” is now transformed as Martelly as the raging bull. Martelly has been symbolically and linguistically substituted for Aristide.

Additionally, Martelly has become, symbolically, the father of the country since the grandmother/mother (Manigat) was rejected. To this end, he recycles a song sang for Aristide by an old peasant man in June of 1990: “lè m’ap pale ak papa m’, papa m’ rele pa m’.” When I speak to my father, my father calls me his own. Again, Aristide, the father has been substituted with a young, newly made over father who promises order and progress while lambasting governmental waste during the past thirty years. But why only the past thirty years when it was the Duvaliers that squandered the country’s structural wealth? It is because Michel Joseph Martelly is a neo-Duvalierist that applauds the order of the old regime.

Most striking in this political ordeal is the fact that Martelly was elected on a political platform that is known as “Respons Peyizan.” However, not one peasant or representative of the other organizations that formed the political platform were mentioned during his victory speech. Interestingly, one of the coalition’s partners that formed the platform, The Organization for the Safety of the Nation, pulled out due to what the leader, Patrick Henry, referred to as a grave violation of the charter. Once again, a major crisis of party politics must have occurred without the criticism of the media. This is possible only in a country where political institutions are absent and political candidates are allowed to use platforms as launching pads for self-interest rather than for the formation of political parties.

Martelly’s populist discourse presumes a harmonized notion of the people, and he tries to show his embodiment through the people by employing his rugged past as transparent currency as well as a societal mirror. He seeks an immediate identification with those he claims to represent, those in the streets, the disenfranchised and the peasants. His populist leadership and legitimate mandate is touted as a transparency of representation, and thus a translation of popular will to affect orderly, clean, and effective governance. However, populism can easily shift the political horizon and turn order into an authoritative state.

Patrick Sylvain is an Instructor of Haitian Language and Culture at Brown University.