After his landslide victory in the March 20 presidential runoff, Haitiian President-Elect Michel Martelly joined Ruben Blades (Panama’s minister of tourism from 2004-2009) and Gilberto Gil (various positions including Brazilian minister of culture from 1987-2008) as an artist who has made a successful transition into politics. But his presidential election is also unique for its use of social media to ride to victory.
Known affectionately to the Haitian people as “Sweet Micky” or tet kale (bald head), Martelly is a popular kompa and carnival artist renowned for his racy lyrics and flamboyant stage persona. It came as no surprise that many initially doubted Martelly’s potential as a serious political candidate. Early predictions had Jude Celestin, a construction tycoon endorsed by incumbent President René Préval, as the favorite to win. Martelly also had to compete with Haitian-American hip-hop/pop artist Wyclef Jean for media attention, until the Electoral Council (CEP) barred Jean from running in September of last year.
Wyclef’s celebrity and Celestin’s political experience left Martelly overlooked by many. Yet his low profile proved beneficial in the lead up to the first round of elections, as it afforded him the time to work on changing his public image from a raunchy, pants-dropping performer, to Michel Martelly, Haitian statesman donning tailored suits and a politician’s smile. This isn’t to suggest that Martelly ran away from his stage persona. Instead he did what all performers do: he tweaked his image to fit the gig for which he was now being booked. Commenting on this transformation in a recent article, AOL’s Haiti correspondent Emily Troutman declares: “It’s likely Martelly was successful in music because he is actually a politician, rather than a musician who stumbled into politics. At the very least, his stardom was a practice in power.”
Martelly was the only one of the three major candidates who understood that this election was going to be won on style rather than substance. The frontrunners, including Martelly, Celestin and former first lady and Martelly’s eventual runoff opponent, Mirlande Manigat, were not that far apart from each other ideologically. All three virtually agreed that Haiti’s top priority was to get citizens still residing in tents into more permanent structures and to ensure that reconstruction funds are effectively utilized.
Where Martelly did manage to distinguish himself from his competition was in online organizing. While Manigat and Celestin struggled to establish basic components of their online infrastructure, Martelly’s movements were being chronicled by some of the island’s most recognizable personalities on their Twitter feeds. Dispatches of Martelly’s campaign activities were ubiquitous on the feeds of three of Haiti’s most prominent Twitter users, Karl Jean Jeune, Carel Pedre and Richard Morse. In addition to being Martelly’s cousin, Morse is also an accomplished musician in his own right and proprietor of Haiti’s famed Oloffson Hotel, which has become an informal base camp for foreign correspondents and those affiliated with Wired Magazine’s Haiti Rewired project.
Given that nearly half of Haiti’s population is under 25 years old and 80 percent of Haitians own a cellphone, Martelly’s affiliations with Haiti’s technorati and his decision to run a nimble campaign that carefully tapped the Haitian youth’s hunger for social media and mobile technology proved to be this election’s deciding factors. As blogger Giovanny Mehu declared in a recent post, “Mr. Martelly is one of the few President[ial] candidate[s] to be taking social media by storm, if not the first in the Caribbean.” While 70-year-old Manigat did conventional radio and TV appearances, Martelly not only matched her presence in these traditional mediums, but he also live streamed presentations and launched online and text-messaging campaigns. For example, in one promotion Martelly supporters on Twitter were encouraged to adorn their profiles with pink Twitter ribbons (or twibbons) bearing the slogan “Vote Tet Kale,” thus turning their pages into virtual billboards for Martelly’s campaign.
In keeping with the carnivalesque atmosphere that often surfaces within most social networking sites, when allegations surfaced regarding prior drug use, financial troubles and alleged ties to the Duvalier regime and post-Duvalier military juntas, these items were often vociferously shouted down by Martelly’s supporters online. As a rock star Martelly was already given a pass for indiscretions that might topple other candidates, but were it not for his army of supporters online, it is also possible that some of these allegations might have come under closer scrutiny even if they were old news.
Some are also likely to argue that Martelly’s online popularity is middling at best. Compare Martelly’s online prowess with that of Newark Mayor Cory Booker, for example, and the disparity is staggering. Even though Booker oversees a city about 20 percent the size of Haiti, his Twitter followers outnumber Martelly’s 1,075,074 to 13,063. Martelly undoubtedly used social media as a soundboard to convince critics that his landslide victory over Manigat is legitimate, despite the fact that less than 40 percent of Haitian voters participated in the elections.
When Martelly takes office in May two incredible feats will have been accomplished in Haiti. First, the fact that the nation devastated by the January 2010 earthquake was able to hold two rounds of voting and elect a president—albeit with widespread fraud and political violence, especially surrounding the first round—is incredible. Second, that in a country that has seen only military juntas, strong-armed dictators or controversial priests in power, for the first time in Haiti’s history, an entertainer will serve as president.
Yet Martelly’s toughest task is yet to come; for as every candidate must learn, the euphoria of winning is inevitably sullied by the rigors of governing.
*Ferentz Lafargue is a guest blogger to AQ Online and is an assistant professor at the The New School for Liberal Arts.