“Don’t let anyone tell you a diploma is not important,” Professor Mirlande Hyppolite Manigat told a crowd in Carrefour. “Politics is not a joke.”
Mirlande Manigat is a serious woman, highly educated and respected. She hopes to be the next president of Haiti. If she wins she will be the first woman ever elected to that position. That would be no minor accomplishment in this oft-termed chauvinist country.
But Sabine Manigat, Mirlande’s stepdaughter, thinks Mirlande has the personal strength to do so.
“She has evolved in milieu that are often male dominated,” and she commands respect, Manigat says. “She doesn’t get angry…but she can be sharp,” Sabine noted.
Powerful men, including senators Youri Latortue and Evaliere Beauplan are helping direct the campaign. But Manigat’s cousin, Nesmy Manigat says she holds her own.
“In general there is the idea that women can’t rule. But around all the men in the campaign, she has the final word.”
This is not always apparent. At rallies she sometimes looks bemused and distant while the men warm up the crowd, directing ra-ra bands and leading supporters to chant, “B’anm manmanm’m” (Give me my mother).
When she has the spotlight she opines precisely and eloquently about her ideas to address the country’s myriad problems. She takes a centrist and conciliatory tone, arguing that MINUSTAH, the generally unpopular United Nations force in Haiti, should draw back, but not disband immediately. She thinks NGOs can help the country, but should be better regulated and follow government policies.
Asked if Haiti was ready to elect a woman, Manigat interrupted, saying “Yes, yes,” dismissing the question and demonstrating the self-assurance, at times termed ego, she is widely-described to possess.
“Once in power, sex has nothing to do with competence or determination,” she explained.
Gregory Brandt, a businessman and Manigat supporter frames the issue in more context.
“When [voters] have a choice between Manigat and Martelly, being a woman won’t be an issue. If you had Manigat in front of another man, not Sweet Micky, that would be an entirely different issue.”
Michel Martelly, nicknamed “Sweet Micky”, who is facing off against Manigat in the second round of the elections later this month, is widely popular with Haiti’s urban masses and is running a smooth and technologically advanced campaign. Critics, however, see him as a far-right, misogynistic potential dictator. The anger some Manigat supporters express at the fact that she is competing to be head of state against a former Kompa-singer, with no university degree, has led to an at times distracted campaign. Analysts spend more time bashing Martelly than defending Manigat who is seen by supporters as the serious, moral candidate.
Manigat comes from Haiti’s intellectual elite. Political power is in her blood: She is a descendent of former president Florvil Hyppolite and the wife of former president Leslie Manigat. She earned her doctorate from the Sorbonne in Paris, and is vice rector at Quisqueya University, Haiti’s most renowned higher education institute. An author of several authoritative texts, Manigat is considered Haiti’s foremost female intellectual and premiere constitutional scholar. Her impressive resume initially seems to make her the obvious choice.
But to attain the presidency, Manigat must first win the campaign. Her elite status, and eloquence in French at times fails to translate to accessible sound bites in Creole.
“Mme Manigat is old,” said Elize Pierre, 35. “We need someone from the youth for the youth.”
Her rallies around Port-au-Prince’s popular neighborhoods have been punctuated with rock throwing and fights in the crowd. Martelly supporters have infiltrated and interrupted her speeches with shouts of “Tet kale!” — Martelly’s campaign slogan.
Martelly has framed himself as a populist, a man of the people, and that can be hard to overcome.
“Sweet Micky’s not an easy competitor,” acknowledged Jean-Junior Joseph, a communications specialist working with the campaign. Sabine Manigat, however, sees populism as less important than competence.
“She never said, ‘I am like a ti machan. She says ‘I have ideas for how to make life better for ti machans.”
But the question of whether Manigat can bridge the gaps so fiercely divisive in Haiti’s stratified society can make or break her campaign. Along the sidelines of a recent campaign rally in Carrefour, Bobby Yonel, a 42-year-old technician pontificated on Manigat’s strengths.
“She’s instructed, she’s had training, she has class.” Then an angry street side vendor interrupted him, yelling that Manigat was a thief like all the politicians.
“Don’t pay attention to her, she doesn’t know what she’s saying,” Yonel spoke over her. “She’s illiterate,” he specified, with a sneer.
About half of Haitians are illiterate, though, and around 20 percent go to school, according to UN figures. Manigat’s emphasis on education is therefore both fitting and distancing. Haitians do need a chance to study, but some don’t like to hear that from someone who has had so many more opportunities to advance. Manigat is trying to use her status and femininity to her advantage. She frames herself as a mother for Haiti.
“The role of a mother is to protect her children, to feed them, to send them to school,” she told a crowd in Belair. Sabine Manigat explained further: “It’s a mark of assurance, of serenity, its someone who…in a moment of many crises, presents herself as an assuring figure.”
The campaign is rushing onward and Haitians will decide later this month if they are ready to try something new, and trust a woman to move their battered country forward.