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Haitians vote in hopes of restoring constitutional order

A voter casts her ballot at a polling station in a school in the commune of Cite Soleil, in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, on November 20, 2016 © AFP / Hector Retamal

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Nov 20 – Haitians cast their ballots Sunday for president and members of the legislature in elections that had been delayed for more than a year by a constitutional crisis.

Nearly 6.2 million people are eligible to vote in the impoverished Caribbean country, parts of which are still struggling to recover from a devastating hurricane.

Choosing a president from among 27 candidates, Haitians formed long lines outside voting stations, under the watchful eyes of polling officials.

After depositing their ballots, voters had their thumbs stained in indelible ink to make sure they could not vote again.

Leading candidates for president include Jovenel Moise, a wealthy Haitian backed by former president Michel Martelly, and Jude Celestin, candidate of the opposition LAPEH.

Nearly 6.2 million Haitians are eligible to cast ballots, choosing a president from a field of 27 presidential candidates/AFP

Also up for grabs are 25 of the 109 seats in the lower house of Haiti’s legislature, and 16 of the 30 Senate seats.

“We feel satisfied with the way the day has unfolded, without violence, serious incidents or polling-place disruptions,” said Leopold Berlanger, president of Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council.

There were 18 arrests around the country for minor infractions, said national police spokesman Gary Desrosiers.

The long-delayed election was held in October 2015 but the results were eventually scrapped over claims of massive fraud and opposition protests.

The invalidation of the results prevented Martelly, a popular singer elected in May 2011, from transferring power to a successor picked by popular vote, as required by the constitution.

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Former Haitian President Michel Martelly whose mandate expired in February votes in Haiti’s presidential and legislative elections in Port-au-Prince, Haiti on November 20, 2016/AFP 

The legislature chose Senate chief Jocelerme Privert as interim head of state initially with a three-month mandate but new polls were delayed amid civil unrest and political infighting.

The first round of the presidential election was scheduled again for this October 9 but was delayed after Hurricane Matthew pummeled the country on October 4.

Tired of the electoral chaos, voters have shown little enthusiasm for Sunday’s polls; in regions hit hard by the hurricane, people have been more concerned with finding food and water.

The streets of Port-au-Prince, normally snarled with traffic, were empty as voting got under way, allowing youths to play football (soccer) in the capital’s roadways.

An attempt to hold the long-delayed Haitian presidential election in October 2015 was scrapped over claims of massive fraud and opposition protests/AFP

Celestin expressed optimism as he voted in Petionville, an upscale neighborhood in the hills overlooking Port-au-Prince.

“I see that in Petionville and in several other neighborhoods, turnout is growing. Contrary to what had been thought, in the towns affected by the hurricane, people are going to vote,” he said.

At the Petionville high school, Rita Pierre held her national identification card tight in her hand.

“We need the elections to go well, for the people to wake up and decide to choose a quality person as head of state to change the country,” said Pierre, 37.

Ongoing struggles

Sunday’s polls offer a chance to rebuild the country’s weakened political institutions.

Presidential candidate Jude Celestine of the Lapeh political party votes in the Petion Ville suburb of Port-au-Prince on November 20, 2016/AFP

But many major challenges poverty, civil unrest, corruption, the lingering effects of a shattering 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic and last month’s hurricane  cloud Haiti’s prospects.

Among measures taken to limit fraud Sunday, voting booths were equipped with side panels for additional privacy, and poll-watchers as well as voters were required to provide picture IDs. Ballot boxes of transparent plastic helped prevent ballot-stuffing.

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The authorities banned people from carrying weapons, and vehicles were not allowed within 100 meters (yards) of polling stations.

Observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) expressed satisfaction with such steps, saying they had “contributed to creating a more peaceful process.”

A first round of elections in August 2015 was marred by violence that forced the cancellation of votes in nearly a quarter of districts.

“If we mess up these elections, we’re screwed,” national police inspector-general Jean Saint-Fleur acknowledged. He said the police were determined to fight anyone making trouble on election day.

Among the measures taken to limit potential fraud in the Haiti elections, voting booths were equipped with side panels for additional privacy /AFP 

More than 9,400 members of the national police were mobilized nationwide, backed by 1,400 officers from the United Nations mission in Haiti.

Preliminary results are not expected until December 1, with final results on December 29.

Any candidate who wins more than half of the votes cast Sunday will be the victor. Otherwise, a runoff is set for January 29.

The United States praised the government’s “commendable” efforts to organize peaceful and fair elections in the wake of the hurricane, and urged all citizens “to cast a vote for their future,” a State Department spokesman said.

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