Haiti run-off vote off to slow, scrappy start

Reuters News
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Posted: Mar 22, 2011 12:57 PM
Haiti run-off vote off to slow, scrappy start

By Joseph Guyler Delva and Pascal Fletcher

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Delays and missing materials dogged early voting on Sunday in Haiti's presidential run-off, which international donors hope can produce a stable leadership to guide recovery after last year's earthquake.

The initial hitches in the capital Port-au-Prince, which produced anger and frustration among some voters, were a concern for the United Nations and the Organization of American States (OAS) which had sought improvements to avoid the chaos and unrest that marred the first round vote held in November.

Several polling stations in the capital were unable to open on time because materials such as ink to mark voters' fingers, ballot papers, labels to mark the ballot boxes and sometimes the boxes themselves had not arrived, witnesses said.

International observers were checking the extent of the problems.

The election presented Haiti's 4.7 million voters with a choice between a political newcomer, energetic entertainer and singer Michel Martelly, 50, and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, 70, a law professor and opposition matriarch.

The small Caribbean state, one of the poorest nations in the world, desperately needs a capable, legitimate leadership and government to steer a post-quake reconstruction that requires billions of dollars of foreign assistance.

Casting his vote in the capital, outgoing President Rene Preval appealed for calm, calling the presidential vote, the first second round run-off in Haiti's electoral history, an important step to consolidate the country's democracy.

"I hope the day will go well, that the results won't have any trouble, so we can have an elected president to replace me," he told reporters.

At polling stations with delays, angry voters protested, then applauded when missing materials arrived.

Blue-helmeted Brazilian U.N. troops guarded voting centers in Port-au-Prince along with Haitian police. White U.N. armored vehicles rumbled through the streets, many still strewn with debris left from last year's quake.

'HOPING FOR A BETTER LIFE'

"I need a president to change the situation of the country," said Adeline Hyppolite, 50, a small-scale trader who cast her ballot in the Petionville district of the capital.

"We are hoping for a better life ... but only God knows," she added, saying her husband had been disabled in the quake.

A false report that Haitian-American hip hop star Wyclef Jean, who backs Martelly, had been shot in the hand on the eve of the vote generated a U.S. media frenzy.

But Vanel Lacroix, police chief in Petionville where Jean is staying, said police had confirmed that he had suffered only a minor cut to his hand from glass in an apparent accident.

"We met with the doctor who saw him and he confirmed Wyclef was cut by glass," Lacroix told Reuters.

Sunday's run-off followed a turbulent November 28 first round vote that dissolved quickly into fraud allegations and unrest.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other international leaders appealed for a calm, transparent run-off vote.

Weighing on many Haitians' minds as they cast their ballots will be the reappearance of a political heavyweight from the past, former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who arrived back from exile on Friday.

The return of the left-wing populist who still commands a big following in Haiti was opposed by the United States and United Nations as potentially disruptive. But Aristide is not a candidate and aides have said he will stay out of politics.

Although Aristide, who was driven into exile by a 2004 rebellion, has not clearly endorsed any candidate, many voters had been trying to interpret whom he favors in what is expected to be a close-fought run-off. Nevertheless, recent opinion polls have shown Martelly slightly ahead of Manigat.

Mixed in with banners welcoming Aristide, the dueling slogans of the rival candidates were plastered on walls.

Martelly's "Tet Kale" slogan, a Creole play on words that refers to his shaven head and also means "all the way" to convey his promise of forceful change, contrasts with Manigat's more homely "Banm Manman'm" (Give me Mummy) slogan that seeks to bolster her image of experience and responsibility.

Reflecting ex-president Aristide's enduring image as a champion of the poor, many Haitians said that if he were on the ballot they would vote for him.

Under Haiti's election law, the Provisional Electoral Council is due to announce preliminary results from the run-off on March 31, with final results being confirmed on April 16.

(Additional reporting by Faradjine Alfred; Editing by Vicki Allen)