* Energetic entertainer draws crowds with change promise
* Campaign gets personal, personalities in spotlight
* Haiti looks for stable leadership in March 20 vote
By Pascal Fletcher
THOMONDE, Haiti, March 16 Like the seasoned
entertainer that he is, Haitian carnival music star and
presidential contender Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly is
working the crowd.
Gesticulating with one hand, cracking jokes in Creole, the
50-year-old, shaven-headed singer draws cheers and hoots of
laughter from his audience, showing the powerful communication
skills and popular touch he hopes will propel him into his
country's top job in a run-off vote on Sunday.
Far from being unnerved by suggestions from the camp of his
politically more experienced opponent, 70-year-old former first
lady and law professor Mirlande Manigat, that he lacks the
profile to be president, Martelly has turned the personality
issue into a campaign weapon.
Responding to critics' jibes that his colorful past as an
iconoclastic entertainer -- which has included antics like
dropping his trousers on stage -- disqualifies him from being
president, the wealthy star of Haiti's catchy Konpa carnival
music is brashly unrepentant.
"They've been saying I dropped my trousers. Yes, I did. But
I always pulled them back up again," he said, drawing guffaws
from the mostly young audience packed into the square of the
farming town of Thomonde in Haiti's Central Plateau region.
"There are people who've been dropping their trousers over
the heads of Haitians for 20 years at the National Palace but
they never pulled them back up," Martelly bellowed into the
microphone, wearing a pink striped polo shirt and blue jeans.
In Sunday's decisive run-off that will elect a successor to
President Rene Preval, policies seem to be taking a backseat to
personal styles in the contest to choose a leader for the
Western Hemisphere's least developed state. [ID:nN14208066]
Overwhelmed by poverty, corruption and mismanagement for
decades, the hapless Caribbean country bears the still raw
scars of a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than
300,000 people. Haiti also suffered floods and a deadly cholera
epidemic after the quake.
The United Nations, with a more than 12,000-strong
peacekeeping force in Haiti, and the United States and other
major foreign donors hope Sunday's vote will deliver stable new
leadership and avoid the chaos, widespread fraud and unrest
that marred the Nov. 28 election first round.
Political neophyte Martelly is telling voters his energetic
style is just what the country needs to blow away the cobwebs
of a jaundiced political establishment viewed as selfish,
corrupt and ineffectual by most Haitians.
"We represent a new way of doing and thinking," he told
Reuters after addressing the Thomonde crowd. "We represent the
wind that is blowing to establish a new state of law, a state
where public function becomes service to the people, contrary
to what is happening today," he added.
FEARS OF FRAUD, UNREST
"I'm not seeking money -- I have that already," says the
well-heeled musician, who counts Haitian-American hip hop star
Wyclef Jean among his backers.
A recent opinion poll by local pollster Brides put Martelly
ahead in the contest, with nearly 51 percent of the vote. The
survey gave rival Manigat some 46 percent.
But Madame Manigat, who is battling perceptions from some
critics that her Sorbonne education and professorial style may
be keeping her aloof from a largely poor Haitian electorate, is
fighting back against Martelly's populist offensive.
After Martelly claimed that his forceful campaign across
the country had already won him "control of 80 percent of the
street," Manigat quipped this week: "I'm not sure if they are
going to get the 'baka' (spirits of the dead) to vote for them,
but I don't see where they find these people."
Manigat, who gained the most votes in the November first
round but not enough to win outright, would be Haiti's first
elected female president if she wins on Sunday.
In an echo of the ill-tempered first round, Martelly
exhorted supporters to "vote -- and watch out," saying plans
were afoot to "steal" what he forecast would be his victory.
His campaign banners hammered out his "Tete Kale" slogan --
a play on words in Creole that means literally "shaved head" (a
reference to his distinctive clean-shaven pate) and also "all
the way." Manigat's banners projected her matriarchal image
with slogans like "We all agree, give me Mommy Mirlande."
In Thomonde at least, Martelly's direct, forceful style
clearly made some impression. "We see that he's someone like
us," said local food vendor Fabienne Gustin.
Haiti's already feverish political climate is being stoked
by reports that this week may see ousted ex-President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a leftist, charismatic former Catholic
priest, return from exile before Sunday's vote in a move the
United States and other Western donors fear could distract
voters from the Manigat-Martelly contest. [ID:nN14163114]
(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva, Editing by John