Haitians begin voting in long-delayed elections

Poorest nation in the Americas goes to polls after campaign period marred by violence and lack of interest from voters.

    After a campaign period pockmarked with violence, Haiti's long delayed elections are finally taking place amid a "climate of terror," according to one human rights group.

    Voting began at 6am (10:00 GMT) on Sunday, with elections held for the chamber of deputies and two-thirds of the senate that have been repeatedly delayed since 2011. Polling stations will close at 4pm local time.

    Al Jazeera's Rob Reynolds, reporting from Port-au-Prince, said voters have been filtering into voting precincts in the capital.

    While the conduct of the elections was generall peaceful, there were reports that two polling stations have been trashed, he said.  

    A presidential poll is set for October 25, in a nation where President Michel Martelly, who is barred from running again by the constitution, has been ruling by decree.

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    Nearly six million eligible voters in this mountainous country of 10.3 million are choosing 119 deputies and 20 senators from 1,855 candidates registered from 128 political parties.

    According to Haiti's electoral system, one-third of the senate is supposed to be renewed every two years, but following the cancellation of elections to the senate in 2012, two thirds of the seats are now up for grabs. 

    The fragile democratic system was further weakened in January, when the country's parliament dissolved after failed negotiations over a new electoral law and left Martelly ruling by decree.

    Despite mass protests, the government waited until March this year to set a new date for this year's voting.

    'Physical attacks'

    In a report published on Wednesday, the National Human Rights Defence Network (RNDDH) warned of escalating clashes in the poorest nation in the Americas.  

    "As election day approaches, verbal confrontations turn into physical attacks, into killings, into beatings," said the RNDDH.

    The organisation said it had already counted nine armed clashes, five murders and several incidents of beatings and stabbings in its tally of partisan violence. 

    Describing the new elections as "a major milestone for democracy", UN chief Ban Ki-moon called on Saturday for Haitians to observe violence-free voting.

    "The secretary-general urges the political parties, candidates and their supporters to campaign peacefully and to resolve any disputes that may arise through dialogue and established legal procedures," Ban's spokesman said in a statement.

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    The abundance of seats has generated a crowded field with 128 registered political parties and no fewer than 1,855 candidates [Reuters]

    The elections, and the overhanging potential for violence, must also contend with another challenge: a record number of office-seekers.

    The political atmosphere is crammed tight with the large number candidates and observers are expecting disorganised and crowded voting.

    "We are allowing five political party representatives to be present simultaneously within the station," said Pierre-Louis Opont, president of Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council, during a Thursday press conference.

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    "It's up to the agents to determine shifts in their observation work," he said.

    Some lower house seats, particularly in the capital of Port-au-Prince, have as many as 30 candidates.

    Though voting will be monitored by observers from the EU and Organisation of American States, some politicians fear that a crowded field will marginalise smaller parties, allowing big parties like Martelly's Repons Peyizan to control procedures.

    The system will not be helped by Haiti's tradition of low voter turnout, in which participation has hovered around 20 percent since 2006.

    Adding to Haiti's problems, this summer the country made global headlines after waves of Haitian migrants were deported from the neighbouring Dominican Republic, raising concerns over the status of Haiti's economy.  

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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