Haitian presidential vote marred by delays, confusion at polls

By Nick Miroff
Monday, March 21, 2011; 1:24 AM

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haiti struggled once more to pull off an orderly election Sunday, as confusion broke out at polls and turnout appeared low, but when the day ended quietly without major violence, election officials and foreign observers called it a success.

Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council ordered polls to stay open an hour longer, after angry crowds gathered in the morning at precincts where doors remained closed long after the scheduled 6 a.m. opening. Ballot boxes went missing at some, while others lacked paper and ink. There were scattered reports of clashes in Haiti's provinces, and here in the capital some residents were spotted with two ink-stained thumbs - a sign they had voted twice.

Still, at many voting stations, the process seemed to unfold relatively smoothly in a country where elections are typically a rough, messy affair. International observers reported problems at several dozen precincts, but it was not difficult to find voters in the capital who had been turned away.

"I've been looking for my name since 6 a.m., but I can't find it," said Jean Ulys Calixte, 51, who wandered the city's Petionville suburb scanning registration lists until afternoon. "I'm too tired to keep looking," he said before heading home to the tent where he has lived since the January 2010 earthquake that killed at least 200,000.

The runoff election for Haiti's president and legislature is considered an essential step in the country's rebuilding process, as foreign donors and aid groups wait to see whether Haiti can install a government capable of managing the effort. More than 1 million Haitians are still living in squalid homeless camps, so any further political wrangling will likely prolong their misery.

Preliminary election results are expected March 31, with full results due April 16.

The contest set raunchy kompa-singer-turned-politician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, 50, against Mirlande Manigat, 70, a university scholar and former first lady. Martelly appeared to have the momentum, at least among Haiti's urban youth, and he has insisted for months that the government of President Rene Preval would sabotage the process to keep him from winning.

It was unclear whether the problems Sunday were caused by dirty tricks, Haiti's general disorganization, or a bit of both. Voters, particularly Martelly supporters, said they were sure that Preval - who called Sunday for "cool heads" to prevail - was scheming to cheat them.

"If they don't know how to count, we'll show them how to count," warned Pierre Yonel, 25, who wore a pink-and-white bracelet - Martelly's colors - with the slogan "Tet Kale" (Bald Head), a reference to the candidate's appearance. Though several of his friends were turned away at the polls, Yonel said casting his ballot was "as easy as coconut water."

A publicist for hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean, who campaigned for Martelly, said Jean was shot in the hand Saturday night and later released from a hospital. But Reuters reported that Vanel Lacroix, police chief in Petionville, where the Haitian-born Jean is staying, said police had confirmed that he had suffered only a minor cut from glass in an apparent accident.

Police with clubs and shotguns stood by at several precincts where problems occurred during the first round of voting Nov. 28, leading to riots. Hundreds of foreign observers were on hand, acknowledging what they called "irregularities." U.S. Embassy officials said they also were closely following the vote. Embassy spokesman Jon Piechowski said he thought most problems in the capital were worked out by afternoon. "Overall, it was a smoother day than November 28," he said. "It wasn't perfect, but it was an improvement based on our observations."

At locations where Haitians managed to vote, it was clear that whatever the election's outcome, the candidates' promises had created expectations for change that will be almost impossible to meet. Montecriste Fluery, 43, awoke in a tent Sunday before dawn, put on his best clothes and walked to the school where he said he was "proud" to find his name on the voter roll. Haiti is broken, he said, but Martelly will fix it.

"I want a job," said Fluery. "I've never had a real job."

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