PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The choice could not be more distinct — a brash musician vs. a matronly former first lady. Yet it's the name that isn't on the ballot that could play a decisive role in Haiti's presidential runoff today.
That name is Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the twice-ousted former president who made a triumphant return from exile two days before the election that will determine who leads Haiti as it struggles to emerge from a political crisis and cholera outbreak while launching a multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort following a devastating earthquake.
With his arrival, the popular and polarizing Aristide immediately sparked feverish speculation over his motivations and intentions, even though his party was barred from the ballot.
His endorsement, if he offers it, could be a boon for one of the two candidates in the runoff. If he tells his followers to boycott the election, it could disrupt the vote and add an influential voice to critics who say it lacks legitimacy.
For some in Aristide's Family Lavalas party, which electoral officials eliminated over technicalities that supporters say were bogus, there is no option but boycott.
Aristide has stayed silent since a speech at the airport on Friday in which he criticized the exclusion of Lavalas, seeming to contradict previous statements from supporters that he would not get involved in politics.
The effect of his presence remains uncertain in a race that largely turns on the personalities of candidates Mirlande Manigat, a university administrator and former first lady, and Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a pop star.
Both candidates have been critical of Aristide in the past. On Saturday, the Manigat campaign claimed the former president subtly endorsed her by alluding to her campaign during his arrival speech.
A Lavalas spokesman, Ansyto Felix, said there was no endorsement.
Whoever wins will face major challenges, including a Senate and Chamber of Deputies controlled by the party of outgoing President René Préval, barred by the constitution from running for re-election. They may also face a surge in cholera once the rainy season starts. There is also anger because 800,000 people are still in what were once optimistically labeled "temporary settlement camps" after the January 2010 earthquake.
The first results from the runoff are expected March 31.