PORT-AU-PRINCE, Mar 21 – Haitian authorities on Monday hailed the country\’s runoff presidential election as a success after voters decided whether a popular singer or a former first lady will lead the impoverished country.
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, violent upheaval and a massive January 2010 earthquake.
Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) president Gaillot Dorsinvil played down reports of irregularities, insisting they would have "no impact on the electoral process as a whole."
"It was a triumph of democracy," he said. "And the makers of this victory were the Haitian people."
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.
Singer and candidate Michel Martelly, casting his own vote 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 set up after the quake that claimed more than 220,000 lives.
"What for? Nobody helps us," said Francine, living in one of the capital\’s hundreds of camps.
Other camp residents complained that they lost all-important identification cards needed for voting in last January\’s disaster, yet to be replaced.
The election is a study in contrasts, pitting Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old academic and former first lady, against 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,"
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.
Ousted from office twice, once in a 1991 military coup and then again in 2004, Aristide burst onto the political scene in 1985 to oppose Duvalier\’s authoritarian rule and challenge the entrenched elite.
The pair\’s presence again in Haiti is an unsettling political wildcard for whoever emerges as Sunday\’s victor and looms over a process that will be key to any chance the desperately poor nation has of a recovery.