Haiti chooses new President
Haitians have voted in a presidential run-off to choose if a popular singer or a former first lady will lead the shattered country struggling to rebuild from a devastating 2010 earthquake.world Updated: Mar 21, 2011 11:52 IST
Haitians have voted in a presidential run-off to choose if a popular singer or a former first lady will lead the shattered country struggling to rebuild from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
The run-off, delayed for months by bickering over a contested and violence-plagued first round in November, had been threatened to be overshadowed by the return from exile of charismatic ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
But Aristide has largely honored a commitment not to upset the delicate political situation and voting began peacefully in the Caribbean nation whose recent past has been scarred by dictatorship and violent upheaval.
As polls officially closed at 4:00 pm (2100 GMT) Sunday -- with preliminary results to be announced on March 31 and final ones on April 16 -- delays prompted the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) to push back closing time by an hour to "give voters the time to exercise their right to vote."
CEP president Gaillot Dorsinvil meanwhile downplayed reports of irregularities at polling stations, insisting they would have "no impact on the electoral process as a whole."
UN monitors said turnout looked likely to exceed pitiful numbers in the first round when only 23 percent of 4.7 million eligible Haitians cast ballots.
"I've seen a lot of differences compared to November 28. Participation is greater," said Edmond Mulet, head of the UN peacekeeping mission MINUSTAH.
Martelly, voting at a school in the upscale neighborhood of Petitionville, told a crowd of several hundred cheering supporters: "Today is the day of change, change for Haiti. The day when Haiti will escape its misery."
The international community is watching closely as it has committed billions of dollars to help reconstruct Haiti, where hundreds of thousands of quake survivors are forced to eke out an existence in squalid camps.
For some in the camps, however, participation in the poll appears a pointless exercise overshadowed by life in the muddy ad-hoc tent cities.
"What for? Nobody helps us," said Francine, living in one of the capital's hundreds of camps.
Other camp residents complained of all-important identification cards needed for voting being lost in last January's disaster, and not yet replaced.
The election is a study in contrasts, pitting Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old academic and former first lady, against Michel Martelly, a 50-year-old singer and carnival performer known to his fans as "Sweet Micky."
They are vying for the job of rebuilding a nation beset by problems, from endemic poverty and corruption to the quake-shattered infrastructure and a cholera epidemic that has claimed almost 5,000 lives since mid-October.
Pre-election opinion polls showed Martelly, a political novice with a colorful past, enjoying a slim lead over the more soft-spoken Manigat, but experts warned that such forecasts are notoriously unreliable.
Colin Granderson, a former Jamaican prime minister who as number two of the regional bloc CARICOM is leading an international observer mission in Haiti, said it was too early to tell how widespread the irregularities were.
The problems, however, appeared minor compared to November when polling stations were trashed and the whole process deteriorated into a farce when most of the candidates called for a re-run even before the polls had closed.
At least five people were killed in December when days of rioting erupted at the news that Martelly had finished third behind ruling party candidate Jude Celestin and would not make the run-off.
After weeks of US-led pressure and a review by international monitors, Martelly was eventually reinstated at the expense of Celestin, who was seen as current President Rene Preval's handpicked successor.
On the eve of Sunday's vote, UN chief Ban Ki-moon said Haitians had a "historic opportunity to shape the future of their country," which is recovering from the quake that killed more than 220,000 people.
Watching from the sidelines are two former presidents and foes -- Aristide and Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, who made a shock return to Haiti in January, ending his own 25-year exile.
Aristide, 57, who rose as a champion of the poor to become Haiti's first democratically elected president, has stopped short of backing either candidate, which could potentially alter the outcome of the race.