PORT-AU-PRINCE It looked just like a revved-up final election campaign rally, with crowds of fanatical supporters mobbing their candidate, chanting his praises and waving his portrait and Haitian flags.
But the object of their adulation, Haiti's former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, is not on the ballot for Sunday's two-horse run-off to elect a leader for one of the world's poorest states, struggling to recover from a 2010 earthquake.
Aristide's tumultuous homecoming from exile on Friday, however, commanded world attention and flew in the face of U.S. and U.N. urging that a figure Washington sees as divisive should not have returned before the vote.
It thrust the 57-year-old left-wing populist, who was ousted by a 2004 rebellion in his second term, back onto the Haitian political stage and into the minds of voters.
The thousands who gave him a hero's welcome, sidelining the campaigns of the two actual candidates, still see him as the best hope to bring "peace in the head, peace in the belly" -- his old slogan -- to Haiti's long-suffering 10 million people.
"I'm happy to see him back, because things will change in the country, he'll create jobs," said Port-au-Prince voter Therese Severe, 60, even as she acknowledged he would not be part of the choice in Sunday's election.
The two candidates on the ballot, former first lady Mirlande Manigat, 70, and singer Michel Martelly, 50, have scrambled to adapt their campaign discourses to accommodate this unexpected returnee from Haiti's turbulent political past.
Not wishing to alienate potential voters from Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party, Haiti's biggest, which has been unable to register a candidate of its own in the absence of its historic leader, they have loudly upheld his right to return home.
"I can't stop him, nobody can stop him ... his presence, which is not an ordinary presence, may cause some agitation ... but he's welcome," said law professor Manigat, whom recent opinion polls show trailing her younger rival Martelly.
It is thought Aristide, who was given a diplomatic passport by the outgoing Haitian government, cannot vote on Sunday.
Some aides say he will stay out of politics but there still has been speculation he might throw his influence, and the votes of his Fanmi Lavalas followers, behind one or other of the candidates, who are seen as politically right of center.
"We don't know what his political intentions or motivations are, but what we know is that he has never, ever endorsed anyone in the past," the top U.N. official in Haiti, Edmond Mulet, told Reuters.
A FUTURE CONTENDER?
Aristide was resting at his refurbished home in Port-au-Prince on Saturday. It was jammed with jubilant supporters on Friday who climbed trees and walls to see him.
Mulet expressed relief that in Aristide's first comments after returning from seven years exile in South Africa, he said more about his emotions than his political ambitions, although he did refer to the "exclusion" of his Fanmi Lavalas party.
Aristide, a charismatic former Catholic priest who became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1991, condemned violence and advocated "inclusion" to solve Haiti's "hunger, insecurity, violence, racism, exclusion, modern slavery".
This is an appealing message in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation where millions are looking for a savior to deliver them from poverty and bad government. This includes hundreds of thousands of quake homeless living in tent camps.
"I'd like Aristide to work with the next president to get people out of the camps," said one voter, Esner Bonhomme.
Aristide's homecoming contrasted with the shock return in mid-January of another ghost from Haiti's past, former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier. He now faces legal charges of past theft and rights abuses and cannot leave the country.
Outgoing President Rene Preval, who is angry at what he sees as excessive U.S. and U.N. meddling in his country, sent officials to meet Aristide and an official car.
"The reason why the United States doesn't want Aristide back is that he is strong. They know that if he is here, they won't be able to manipulate the people," said Seme Pascal, an agronomy student in Port-au-Prince.
And Aristide could be a contender in a future vote. "Haiti will have many more elections in the future, I hope ... open to the participation of everybody," the U.N.'s Mulet said.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva, Faradjine Alfred; Editing by Xavier Briand)