MEXICO CITY — Haitian voters turned out Sunday to choose between more than 50 presidential candidates and bring some order to a chaotic political climate that over recent months has suffered from delayed and disrupted elections, a dissolved legislature and violent street protests.
For Haiti, an impoverished Caribbean nation still recovering from a catastrophic 2010 earthquake, a fair and peaceful election would amount to a major achievement. Early indications suggested that Sunday’s vote proceeded without major disruptions, but results won’t be known until next month.
Local and legislative elections have been delayed repeatedly during President Michel Martelly’s term, prompting months of protests. The parliament was dissolved earlier this year and he has been ruling by decree. U.S. officials have worried that Haiti’s other potential reforms — updating the penal code, addressing human rights problems — have languished with all the political uncertainty.
“They really can’t afford to have that kind of stalemate,” Peter F. Mulrean, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, said in an interview.
Unreliable polling has made it difficult to predict the front-
runners. Among the dozens of candidates are gas station and lottery magnates, lawyers, merchants and a former director of the Haitian National Police. One of the presumed favorites is Jude Célestin, the former head of the state-run construction company. He got dropped from a runoff in 2010 after foreign observers challenged his results, and many Haitians think he was unfairly treated last time around.
“We want this country to change,” said Abner Pamphil, 30, holding a Célestin poster last week along a busy street in Port-au-Prince. “He’s a hard worker. He’s employed a lot of people. And we need more jobs.”
Another prominent candidate is Jovenel Moïse, a political neophyte known as the “Banana Man,” who is backed by Martelly.
In August, an earlier round of voting was marred by violence and voter intimidation, as gunmen fired at polling stations. The chaos was “the worst election we’ve ever had since the departure of Baby Doc” — former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier — in 1986, said Pierre Espérance, a prominent human rights activist.
“It is unacceptable in 2015 that we are having such bad and unfair elections with violence and intimidation,” he said.
Before Sunday’s vote, violence flared in parts of the capital, with allegations that residents were fighting over gifts, from motorcycles to cash, handed out to rival factions by different campaigns. Gangs rampaged through the vast seaside slum of Cité Soleil a week before the vote, killing several people and burning houses. One of the victims was Desiliene Moliere, a 26-year-old woman who was seven months pregnant.
“This has been the biggest tragedy of my life,” said her husband, Isaih Jenty. “I don't think elections will bring any change, because change means eliminating these bandits.”
Across the capital, police stepped up joint patrols with U.N. peacekeepers in the days before the vote. Police planned to guard polling stations in teams of three.
“We are optimistic that this round of elections has been better organized and prepared than August,” Mulrean, the ambassador, said. “We can’t tell you whether certain actors are going to act responsibly.”
In a central plaza that had been a sprawling tent camp after the earthquake, Joslin Asner, 51, a textile worker, was enjoying an afternoon breeze last week. He planned to vote for Jude Célestin, because he believed he had been robbed by the international community in 2010, and “this is a way to reward him.” But given the poverty and misery in Haiti, he said, he didn’t expect the elections would bring too much change.
“If it weren’t for politicians, this would be a pretty country,” he said.