Haitians vote hoping to restore constitutional order

Port-au-Prince (AFP) –


Haitians went to the polls Sunday to elect a president and members of the legislature in hopes of restoring constitutional order in the impoverished Caribbean country after more than a year of political crisis.

Nearly 6.2 million voters are eligible to cast ballots, choosing a president from a field of 27 presidential candidates.

Also up for grabs are 25 of the 109 seats in the lower house of Haiti's bicameral legislature, and 16 of the 30 Senate seats.

An attempt to hold the long-delayed election in October 2015 was scrapped over claims of massive fraud and opposition protests.

The cancellation prevented President Michel Martelly, a popular singer elected in May 2011, from transferring power to a successor picked by popular vote, as required by the constitution.

The failure to do so created a power vacuum when Martelly's mandate expired in February.

Parliament chose Senate chief Jocelerme Privert as interim head of state -- initially for a mandate of three months -- but new polls were delayed amid civil unrest and political infighting.

The first round of the presidential election was scheduled again for October 9, but was delayed after devastating Hurricane Matthew pummeled the country on October 4.

Tired of the electoral chaos, voters have shown little enthusiasm in participating in Sunday's polls. In regions hit hard by the hurricane, people have been more concerned with finding food and water than picking the country's next leaders.

First in line at the Petionville high school in the hills above Port-au-Prince, Rita Pierre held her national identification card tight in her hand.

"We need the elections to go well, for the people to wake up and decide to choose a quality person as head of state to change the country," said Pierre, 37.

- Struggling Haiti -

The Caribbean nation -- the poorest in the Americas -- had a brutal struggle to end slavery and colonialism, followed by decades of corrupt dictatorship and, in recent years, a series of crippling natural disasters.

Coming three decades after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorships, Sunday's delayed polls offers a chance to start building political institutions supported by the constitution.

But many challenges -- poverty, civil unrest, corruption, the lingering effects of a shattering 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic and last month's severe hurricane -- cloud Haiti's prospects.

Among the measures taken to limit potential fraud, voting booths were equipped with side panels for additional privacy and for the first time poll-watchers as well as voters are required to be identified with picture IDs.

Authorities sought to reassure voters, after a first round of elections in August 2015 was marred by violence that forced the cancellation of votes in nearly a quarter of districts.

"If we mess up these elections, we're screwed," national police inspector general Jean Saint-Fleur acknowledged. "The police are determined to fight any crook or other individual trying to create trouble on election day."

The authorities banned people from carrying weapons Sunday, and vehicles were not allowed within 100 meters (yards) of polling stations.

More than 9,400 members of the national police were mobilized throughout the country, backed by 1,400 officers from the United Nations mission in Haiti.

Preliminary results are not expected until December 1 due to logistical concerns with some of the more remote parts of the country.

Following an appeal period for candidates, final results are due to be made public on December 29.

Any candidate who wins more than half of the votes cast on Sunday will be the victor. Otherwise, a runoff is set for January 29.

- Turning a corner? -

Though there is a long list of presidential hopefuls, only a handful have a chance of making it past the first round.

Jovenel Moise, a wealthy Haitian who has the support of Martelly's camp and his PHTK party, is one of the leading candidates.

His main competition is Jude Celestin, backed by the opposition LAPEH.

To their left, the populist Moise Jean-Charles of the "Children of Dessalines" movement hopes his high profile in anti-Martelly protests will carry the day.

And the campaign of Maryse Narcisse has attracted attention, since she represents the Fanmi Lavalas party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, still a hero to many of Haiti's poor.

Sandra Honore, head of the United Nations mission in Haiti, urged voters to the polls.

"I hope this November 20 electoral process will unfold correctly," she said.

"I believe that, even with a certain frustration about the representation provided by elected officials, that will be a moment for the Haitian population to indicate very clearly what they want."

The United States, Haiti's neighbor to the north, praised the government's "commendable" efforts to organize the elections in the wake of the hurricane.

"We urge all Haitian actors to ensure that the election is peaceful and fair, to allow citizens to cast a vote for their future, and for that of the country," said State Department spokesman John Kirby.