Vote count begins in Haiti runoff

UN official describes vote as peaceful but several polling sites delayed opening because they lacked voting materials.

    Haitians voted for a new president who they hope will be able to steer post-quake reconstruction efforts [Al Jazeera]

    Balloting has ended in Haiti's presidential runoff with observers describing polling day as being generally peaceful.

    Polling centres in most of Haiti closed as scheduled at 4pm local time (2100 GMT), but voting was extended by one hour in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area to make up for initial delays.

    Election officials began counting the votes by lamplight as most of the capital, Port-au-Prince, and much of the Caribbean nation has no electricity. Preliminary results will be announced later this month.

    Haiti's election law requires the Provisional Electoral Council to confirm the final results on April 16.

    There was concern the long wait could cause impatience and possible protests, but CEP officials said both candidates have agreed to make no victory declarations and hold no rallies until the first results are announced.

    "It was generally peaceful and calm, although we had isolated incidents. So far, it's encouraging"

    Sylvie van den Wildenberg, MINUSTAH spokesperson

    Gaillot Dorsinvil, Haiti's top electoral officer, said the country's first presidential run-off saw a large voter turnout. Haiti's elections have often been marred by fraud and violence.

    Haitians voted on Sunday to choose between a singer and a former first lady to be the next president of one of the world's poorest countries.

    The close race presented Haiti's 4.7 million voters with a choice between a political newcomer, extrovert entertainer and singer Michel Martelly, 50, and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, 70, a law professor and opposition matriarch.

    Recent opinion polls showed Martelly ahead of Manigat.

    Despite delays caused by initially missing electoral materials especially at polling stations in the capital, international observers found voting to be smoother that the chaotic first round on November 28, which dissolved into fraud allegations and unrest.

    "It was generally peaceful and calm, although we had isolated incidents," Sylvie van den Wildenberg, a spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), said.

    "So far, it's encouraging," she added, noting that no immediate fraud claims or protests followed the day of voting.

    Officials said many polling stations in the capital did not open on time because materials, such as ink to mark voters' fingers and ballot papers, did not arrive early. But the problems were mostly resolved as the day progressed.

    UN guards

    Blue-helmeted Brazilian UN troops guarded voting centres along with Haitian police, and UN armoured vehicles rumbled through the streets, many still strewn with debris left from last year's earthquake.

    The UN, which is supporting the election, says voting improvements have been made since the November vote to enable a clear, credible outcome for the runoff.

    "I need a president to change the situation of the country," Adeline Hyppolite, a voter who cast her ballot in the Petionville district of the capital, said.

    "We are hoping for a better life ... but only God knows. We hope we'll find the change we're looking for."

    The Caribbean island-nation needs a capable leadership and government to steer a post-quake reconstruction that requires billions of dollars of foreign assistance.

    UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon and other international leaders had appealed for a calm, transparent vote.

    Weighing on many Haitians' minds as they cast their ballots was the reappearance of a political heavyweight from the past, former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who arrived back from exile on Friday.

    The return of the left-wing populist and former Catholic priest who still commands a big following in Haiti was
    opposed by the US and UN as potentially disruptive to the polls. But Aristide is not a candidate and aides have said he will stay out of politics.

    Mixed in with banners welcoming Aristide, the duelling slogans of the rival candidates were plastered on walls.

    Martelly's "Tet Kale" slogan, a Creole play on words that refers to his shaven head and also means "all the way" to convey his promise of forceful change, contrasts with Manigat's more homely "Banm Manman'm" (Give me Mummy) slogan that seeks to bolster her image of experience and responsibility.

    Under Haiti's election law, the Provisional Electoral Council is due to announce preliminary results from the runoff on March 31, with final results being confirmed on April 16.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and agencies


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