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Haiti all set for landmark voting today

Two years after their last elected president fled, Haitians prepared to pick a new leader today.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2006 12:25 IST
Agence France-Presse
Agence France-Presse

Two years after their last elected president fled, Haitians prepared to pick a new leader Tuesday, torn between high hopes for this struggling Caribbean nation and fears violence could flare up.

UN military and police troops, which have been in Haiti since 2004, took up their positions to protect voting centers and prevent a new flare-up of the violence that recently rocked the turmoil-torn Caribbean nation.

Many of the 3.5 million registered voters will face long hikes to voting stations. Electoral authorities urged Haitians in radio broadcasts to "wake up early and walk."

They also urged voters to wear "comfortable shoes", though that piece of advice may be lost in this dirt-poor country where many walk barefoot.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for a peaceful election and for all parties to accept the results of the vote.

"To those who may feel tempted to disrupt the democratic process, let me say that the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti will do all it can to support the Haitian authorities in ensuring that the vote is held in freedom and safety," Annan said.

"I call on all parties to respect the outcome of the elections, and on the incoming leadership to demonstrate commitment to reconciliation and inclusiveness," he added.

The US government, which contributed 30 million dollars to election preparations, said the vote presented a chance for a new era in Haiti.

"It's an important day for the Haitian people," said US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack.

"They have an opportunity to, through the ballot box, choose who will lead them and to close the book on this last chapter in Haiti's history," he said.

The elections were postponed four times amid violence and disarray, but UN and Haitian officials have expressed confidence the voting will go ahead smoothly, though they do not rule out isolated incidents.

"There is no possibility of fraud," said Jacques Bernard, the director of the Electoral Council (CEP,) stressing that the 120,000 Haitian and 350 international observers will monitor every step of the election.

He nevertheless acknowledged he was "a little worried."

"Let's be realist, Haiti is in difficult situation as far as security is concerned," he told AFP.

"Some people are interested in plunging the country into chaos because it's good for their drug trafficking, smuggling and other illegal activities."

But he said he was confident a great majority of Haitians would stand up against any attempt to disrupt the election.

"People have a profound desire to vote," he said.

Former president Rene Preval, 63, is the clear frontrunner in opinion polls, and appears to derive widespread support among the millions of impoverished Haitians, many of whom remain loyal to former president Jean Bertrand Aristide.

But Preval, a former president and a longtime ally of Aristide, seems far less popular among wealthier Haitians.

"The majority of the business sector has serious concerns about the idea of a new presidency by Preval, considering his past ties to Aristide," said Reginald Boulos, who heads Haiti's Chamber of Commerce.

Aristide resigned and fled the country on February 29, 2004 as an uprising threatened his hold on power amid widespread violence the White House blamed on his administration.

On Monday, Preval's campaign posters in the middle-class neighborhood of Petionville were defaced, or replaced with those of industrialist Charles Henry Baker.

Opinion polls indicate Baker and former president Leslie Manigat are competing for second place and a chance to face off against the frontrunner in a second round that would be held next month if no candidate achieves a majority.

Voters will also choose from among 1,300 candidates for the 129-seat parliament.

Haitian and Minustah officials Monday rushed to complete last minute preparations and finish delivering ballots to the voting centers by road and by air.

In La Digue, a peaceful village north of the capital, 10 Uruguayan UN soldiers hiked for about six hours alongside mules and porters to deliver ballots, plastic ballot boxes and other voting materials to a remote community.

First Published: Feb 07, 2006 12:23 IST