Haitians stuggle to secure ID cards needed to vote

Protesters take to the streets, setting blazes and firing off guns after an election in which fraud was alleged. The nation's president calls for calm.
By Nick Miroff
Saturday, November 27, 2010; 9:38 PM

IN PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI In the hills above this capital, the crowds pushed and jostled all day Saturday at the doors of the cracked government buildings of Petionville, its central square now a squalid tent camp.

Inside were the boxes of unclaimed identification cards that Haitians need to vote in Sunday's election. Outside, men and women who had been standing since sunrise waved their tattered paperwork at insouciant government clerks.

And when the clock struck 4:30 p.m. - quitting time - the clerks shut the doors, locked the gates and told the crowd to come back later, after the election.

"We want our cards! Give us our cards!" the crowd shouted, scattering as police moved in.

And so, Rachel Pierre, 20, headed back home to the tent she shares with her family and 3-year-old daughter, still lacking the card that might verify her existence and allow her to cast a ballot. "There is no work here. There is nothing," she said. "It would have been my first time voting."

For Pierre and many others trying to go to Haiti's polls Sunday, the election will be a tense occasion, with some degree of disappointment almost certain. Apathy, a cholera outbreak and fear of violence might keep some away from voting stations, while an unknown number of others won't be eligible without their identification cards, many of which were lost in the Jan. 12 quake that killed 300,000.

But Sunday will also be chance for Haitians to exert a bit of control over chaotic lives that have been beset by one disaster after another, natural and man-made.

Picking from the field of 19 candidates seemed less important to many here than simply doing something to replace the administration of outgoing President Rene Preval, who is widely seen as weak and ineffective.

"I don't care who wins, as long as it's someone new," said Leonor Laguerre, 56, making his fourth attempt to acquire an ID card. "For Haiti to develop, we have to have a new president."

If no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will be held in January. Voters will also choose candidates for Parliament and a third of the Senate.

The international aid organizations and foreign governments keeping this country propped up also view the election as a critical step toward accelerating the reconstruction process. An election marred by low turnout and violence might may hamper the flow of international aid, but a reasonably orderly process could speed the delivery of the $6 billion pledged by the United States and other donor nations, of which only $732 million has arrived.

Government buildings - the ones that weren't knocked down in the quake - were mobbed all week by Haitians trying to get identification cards.

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