|Haitian police have kept apart boisterous supporters of rival presidential candidates in Port-au-Prince [Reuters]
Haitian voters are mulling a stark choice as they prepare to pick a new leader to rebuild a nation crippled by mismanagement, natural disaster, and now cholera.
At the head of the 18-strong presidential field are a 70-year-old academic and former first lady who could become Haiti's first woman leader, and a young technocrat plucked from obscurity to be the ruling party's candidate.
Sunday's elections for a new president and parliamentary deputies, along with several senate seats, come as Haiti battles a cholera outbreak that has claimed 1,648 lives and has yet to peak.
It is also the first election since a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake in January killed 250,000 people.
The challenges facing the successor to Rene Preval, the president, are immense, and the stakes of the election could not be higher for a nation where 80 per cent of the population lives off less than two dollars a day.
'Rupture from the past'
The latest opinion poll gave a clear, eight-point lead to Mirlande Manigat, a long-time opposition leader and former first lady who is from Haiti's ruling classes but respected for her academic career.
Manigat, an assistant dean at Quisqueya University, is pushing education and promising a break from the corruption-tainted administrations of the past that have done little to address the plight of ordinary Haitians.
"This election is not important for me. It's important for the country. Haitians do not want continuity. They want change, to see a rupture from the past," she said in an interview with the AFP news agency.
On Friday, Manigat accused backers of Jude Celestin, the candidate favoured by Preval, of hoarding 500,000 fake ballots and warned that widespread fraud could derail her candidacy.
"I am sure to make it to the second round. Only skullduggery can prevent me from becoming president," she told reporters.
Posters of Celestin, who rose to prominence when Preval picked him to head a task-force charged with the road-clearing and rebuilding operations after the quake, smile down from nearly every street corner in the capital.
Tens of thousands of Haitians gathered for a rally on Thursday for the 48-year-old ruling INITE (UNITY) party candidate that included nearly four hours of song and dance but just 10 minutes of political speech.
"Jude Celestin is an engineer," Bej Danda, a 31-year-old government official, said. "It will be good for us. He builds roads across the country."
Despite having the considerable benefits of the ruling party machinery at his disposal, Celestin, who is engaged to Preval's daughter, has struggled to shake off the image of being the president's man.
Preval has been criticised for his response to the earthquake, and many in Haiti's sprawling slums are disappointed that the man who built his career on being a champion of the poor has done little to ease their abject poverty.
Al Jazeera's Cath Turner, reporting from Port-au-Prince, said that the international community has been withholding much of the reconstruction budget, until donors know who will be in power.
"About $10bn was pledged to Haiti after the earthquake," our correspondent said. "A lot of that has not come in yet ... to make sure it gets through to the right people."
The number three candidate Michel Martelly, a popular singer widely known as "Sweet Micky," also predicted "massive fraud", blaming officials close to Manigat and Celestin.
|Fears have risen that the presidential polls could be marred by violence [Reuters]
Martelly claimed on Saturday that there had been an attempt on his life during a late rally in the southern city of Les Cayes on Friday,
But Lucia Newman, Al Jazeera's Latin America editor, said that there was still no proof that he had been targeted.
"Political campaigns are often accompanied by violence ... and for many candidates it is almost considered a mark of honour here to have an assassination attempt, because with 18 candidates in this race, it shows that you are force to be reckoned with.
"All the main candidates claim that one of their rivals are trying to kill them," she said.
No candidate is expected to pass threshold of 50 percent of votes needed for an outright victory. The two front-runners are expected to make it through to a January 16 run-off, but nothing is certain in Haiti's political arena.
The electoral commission said that 4,714,112 people would be eligible to vote in the elections, correcting an earlier UN figure.
Voters will cast ballots at more than 11,000 polling stations for the president, 11 of the country's 30 senators and all 99 parliamentary deputies.
However, there appears to be confusion among many voters about where they will be able to cast their ballot, with many people still living in makeshift communities set up to house those made homeless by the earthquake.
"There are more than 1.5 million people that were displaced by the earthquake and who are still struggling to stay alive," Al Jazeera's Newman said.
"Many of them used to go to schools and other buildings to vote. These buildings no longer exist and they don't know where to go. There are hundreds of thousands of Haitians who still don't have the mandatory identity documents that are needed to go and vote."
The director of Haiti's electoral registry has also voiced fears that widespread fraud could "hijack" the poll results.
But Edmond Mulet, the UN peacekeeping mission chief, offered reassurances on Thursday that the situation was "calm, peaceful, serene and without violence" compared to polls in previous years.
The UN also assured Haitians that going forward with elections on Sunday was not expected to increase the spread of cholera.
"The kind of movement and congregating you see with people going to vote is not the kind of movement that creates an increased risk of cholera transmission," Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan-American Health Organisation, said.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies