Port-Au-Prince (AFP) Nov 28, 2010
Gripped by cholera, Haitians voted Sunday in national elections marred by allegations of fraud, searching for a new leader to rebuild a country shattered by a cataclysmic earthquake.
Voting day threatened to descend into chaos with reports of violence, polling stations being sacked and, with hours to go before polling stations closed, a leading candidate calling for the elections to be scrapped.
"There not only has been fraud, it is an utter scandal, the vote may as well have been kidnapped," said a spokesperson for 70-year-old former first first lady Mirlande Manigat, leading pre-election opinion polls.
Manigat, who would be Haiti's first female leader if elected, did not flesh out her allegations but previously accused backers of ruling party candidate Jude Celestin of hoarding 500,000 fake ballots.
Campaigning has been marred by deadly political clashes, alleged assassination attempts, anti-UN riots over the growing cholera outbreak, and claims that widespread vote-rigging will render the results null and void.
Authorities banned motorbike traffic and alcohol sales on election day as security was stepped up with an international force of 3,200 UN police and 9,000 Haitian personnel seeking to keep the peace.
Despite the apparent chaos, Edmond Mulet, the Guatemalan diplomat who heads the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSTAH, was optimistic the crucial elections to find a successor to President Rene Preval would be a success.
"In general everything is going well, everything is peaceful," Mulet told AFP on a tour of Leogane, a town near the capital Port-au-Prince 90 percent destroyed by January's earthquake, which killed 250,000 people.
"MINUSTAH is here. There is no reason to be frightened. It's an electoral celebration. The people's decision will be respected. There are small administrative problems, but nothing big that will reduce participation."
In the northern town of Desdunes, however, a hostage-taking offered a reminder that violence is never far away in Haiti, a country with a tumultuous past plagued by dictatorship, gangs and government corruption.
"There was shooting all night," Desdunes mayor Wesner Archelus told AFP. "Clashes erupted in a voting station where an election monitor from the ruling party was briefly taken hostage."
For most in Haiti, still traumatized by the quake and now in the grips of a cholera epidemic that has claimed almost 1,650 lives, the election brings distant hope of a new future.
"It's important to have change. It's that. That's what I'm hoping for," said Fabre Gary, 34, as he waited with a small group of voters in front of a polling station in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Petionville.
At the head of the 18-strong field are government technocrat Celestin, who has enjoyed full use of the ruling INITE (Unity) party machine, and Manigat, a 70-year-old longtime opposition leader.
No candidate is expected to pass the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory. Two of the front-runners will probably make it through to a January 16 run-off, but nothing is sure in Haiti's uncertain political arena.
Whoever does win faces the daunting task of rebuilding a nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake less than a year ago flattened Port-au-Prince.
Some 1.3 million people displaced by the quake live in squalid tent cities that cling to the vertiginous slopes of the capital -- hundreds of thousands more inhabit sprawling slums such as the notoriously violent Cite Soleil.
Celestin, 49, who rose to prominence when Preval tasked him with leading road-clearing and rebuilding efforts after the earthquake, has struggled to shake off the image of being too close to the unpopular president.
But he enjoys the support of the ruling party and smiles down from posters on nearly every street corner in the capital, where 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
Tens of thousands of Haitians gathered for a Celestin rally on Thursday that included nearly four hours of song and dance, and just 10 minutes of political speeches.
His main challenge has come from Manigat, who is no stranger to the ruined presidential palace as she was first lady for a few months in 1988 before her husband Leslie Manigat was ousted from office in a military coup.
Nearly 4.7 million Haitians are eligible to vote in the elections, which will also see 11 of the country's 30 senators and all 99 parliamentary deputies chosen.
The country could face further chaos and risk billions in international aid if no credible government emerges to replace Preval, who is legally barred from seeking a third term.
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