Polls open in Haiti

The polls are open in Haiti for presidential and legislative elections amid a cholera outbreak in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean country.
UN peacekeepers of the Italian Carabinieri stand guard as electoral material is delivered to a refugee camp in Port-au-Prince on Saturday. ((Guillermo Arias/Associated Press) )

Haitians headed to the polls Sunday in the first general election since the Jan. 12 earthquake devastated the country and in the midst of a spreading cholera outbreak.

Voter turnout and election fraud are key concerns in the country, where more than 1.3 million people remain homeless, many lost their identification in the rubble and some killed in the quake are still on registration lists.

Link: Live coverage from the CBC team in Haiti

"Our expectations are for a decent turnout, not a strong universal turnout," said Nigel Fisher, a Canadian who heads the United Nations' humanitarian efforts in the Caribbean country. The 2006 election saw a 59 per cent voter turnout, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.

Fisher said this election has seen much less violence than previous years in a country where elections are often marred by massive demonstrations and deadly violence. 

Gunfire rang out Friday night at a rally for presidential hopeful Michel Martelly. The candidate's spokesperson described it as an assassination attempt and said one person died and a few others were injured.

But police denied there were any deaths or injuries.

Martelly, a singer known for his Kompas dance music and on-stage antics, is considered among a trio of frontrunners, including Mirlande Manigat and Jude Celestin, in a field of 18 candidates for president.

Rally disrupted

Manigat, 70, a Sorbonne-educated wife of a former president, also saw a rally disrupted days earlier by gunfire in the crowd.

Earlier in the week, supporters of Celestin, the handpicked successor of outgoing President René Préval, clashed with supporters of Charles-Henri Baker, a garment manufacturer in the coastal town of Jeremie. There were conflicting reports about the casualties.

Past elections have seen dozens of voting stations attacked in advance of the polls opening, but this year has seen only a few such incidents, says Fisher.

About 12,000 United Nations troops and police, plus 9,500 local police, will be deployed to protect polling stations.

Many frustrated Haitians lined up Saturday in a last-ditch effort to obtain the national identity card that is necessary to cast a ballot.

The card also serves as a key piece of identification. Some reported trying for years to secure the card, while others lost theirs in the earthquake.

Hit by disease

Critics question whether elections should even be held while the country struggles with its latest blow, the cholera outbreak.

The UN and the Haitian government maintained it was best to proceed with the planned election, but not all agree.

"We're not hearing Haitians say they want to vote right now. They want housing. They want basic needs met," said Melinda Miles, founder of Let Haiti Live, a group observing the elections.

Fisher said residents of Haiti, the poorest state in the Western hemisphere, are disillusioned with their political process in general.

"Haitians have not been well served by their governments, by their leaders. And they have not been particularly well served by the international community, either."

Voters are selecting a president and 99 members of parliament, plus replacing 11 members in the 30-seat Senate.

Preliminary official results will be available Dec. 7, with a final tally on Dec. 20.

It is unlikely any candidate will secure the necessary 50 per cent of the vote to avoid a runoff election between the top two contenders. It would take place in mid-January.

With files from The Associated Press