Confusion reigns over voting process in disaster-ravaged Haiti
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Chaos ruled in Haiti on Sunday after voters protested at disorganisation at polling stations during the country's presidential election and several presidential candidates denounced fraud and called for the election to be annulled.
REUTERS - Frustrated voters in Haiti protested at defective electoral lists and disorganized polling stations on Sunday as the country held turbulent elections amid a raging cholera epidemic and political tensions.
Across the sprawling earthquake-ravaged capital Port-au-Prince and under a hot sun, angry Haitians wanting to cast their ballots were desperately searching for the voting
centers where their names were registered.
Many polling stations opened late, mired in confusion and arguments over materials and observers.
At one center at Delmas neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, which had still not begun operating hours after the official 6 a.m. (1100 GMT) opening time, several hundred protesting voters ran in the streets clamoring to be able to cast their ballots as armed U.N. police in riot gear stood by.
"People came to fulfill their right as citizens to vote, but up to now, no one has been able to," said Joel Biteau, an observer from one of the political parties at the station.
Three of the 18 presidential candidates standing announced they would hold a news conference to denounce what they called "massive fraud".
At Fort Liberte in northeast Haiti, one person was injured when gunmen opened fire at a voting station, local Radio Caraibes reported without giving more details.
It was a chaotic opening to presidential and legislative elections the international community hopes can produce a stable, credible government to lead the impoverished Caribbean nation in recovery from a devastating January earthquake.
Some voters did not have the national identity cards they needed to vote, others had their IDs but did not find their names on voter lists in the centers set up in schools, wooden huts and even in tents in crowded earthquake survivors' camps.
"I can't find where to vote. I have my identity card but I'm not on the list," said Denis Anis, 18, a first-time voter. Similar problems and protests were reported across the city.
University of San Francisco law professor Nicole Phillips told Reuters: "It's more than confusion, people can't find their names on the lists, they are holding their IDs, they are eligible to vote, but they can't do it."
Phillips, a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti, said the disorganization would further undermine the credibility of the elections, whose preparations were marked by sporadic violence and widespread skepticism.
With political tensions flaring, and rebuilding after the January earthquake seemingly paralyzed by the advancing deadly cholera epidemic, many fear a contentious turbulent election may just drive Haiti deeper into turmoil.
More than 12,000 U.N. troops and police were assisting local police in protecting more than 11,000 polling stations.
A clutch of front-runners -- a Sorbonne-educated opposition matriarch, a government technocrat who is a protege of outgoing President Rene Preval, and a charismatic entertainer and musician -- lead a varied field of 18 presidential candidates.
Although opinion polls have put 70-year-old former first lady Mirlande Manigat ahead, the lack of a clear favorite has increased the likelihood of the contest going to a deciding Jan. 16 runoff between the two top vote-winners.
The biggest protagonists on Sunday may turn out to be apathy, confusion and fears of violence, which could keep many of the 4.7 million registered voters at home, as could the raging cholera epidemic that has killed some 2,000 people, according to U.N. officials, and sickened tens of thousands.
But there were Haitians who said they were anxious to vote, seeing the nationwide ballot as a way to help usher in a better future after this year's succession of calamities adding to Haiti's sad history of natural disasters and man-made problems, such as uprisings and corrupt dictatorships.
Calling 2010 the "worst year in Haiti's history," outgoing President Preval, who cannot run again after serving two terms, called on Haitians to vote in peace and shun violence.
Manigat has been tracked in opinion polls by Jude Celestin, 48, candidate of Preval's Inite (Unity) coalition, and Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, 49, a star of Haiti's Kompa dance music, whose rallies have drawn supporters in droves.
Another candidate, lawyer Jean-Henry Ceant, 54, could make a strong showing if he galvanizes supporters of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
Sporadic violence, including ambushes of campaign caravans, random gunfire and attacks by rioters against Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers whom some Haitians accuse of bringing in the cholera, has killed several people in the run-up to the vote.
The United Nations says there is no conclusive evidence the Nepalese troops are the source of the disease outbreak.
Electoral observers and experts from the Organization of American States, the Caribbean Community, the association of Francophone states, the European Union and several European countries are in Haiti to observe and support the elections.