Port-au-Prince (AFP) – Long-postponed legislative elections in Haiti got off to a somewhat troubled start Sunday, with at least one polling station ransacked and lengthy delays at others in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
The polls, the first since President Michel Martelly came to power in May 2011, are taking place against a backdrop of fear of violence and expected low voter turnout — and they come months after lawmakers left their posts.
Haiti — the poorest country in the Americas — suffers from a history of chronic instability and is still struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people and crippled the nation’s infrastructure.
In downtown Port-au-Prince, where many voters were forced to wait more than an hour before they could even enter polling stations, unidentified assailants ransacked one post as voters waited to cast their ballots.
“They came, yelled that the elections had been manipulated by the government,” said Dieunel, a worker at the vandalized station who only gave one name.
“They opened the ballot boxes, tore up the ballots. Some people outside threw bottles and stones at us,” he said, adding that there was “nothing we could do.”
Police and officials from Haiti’s provisional electoral council (CEP) arrived to find the schoolyard polling station littered with ballot shreds, which many area residents were picking up and taking away as souvenirs.
Poll officials were unable to say whether the station would reopen Sunday.
Polls opened at 6:00 am (1000 GMT), and were due to close to 4:00 pm. Results were not expected immediately.
Voters beyond the capital were also forced to endure lengthy delays before polling stations opened their doors, as personnel struggled to post candidate lists and set up ballot boxes.
The spokesman for Haiti’s provisional electoral council, Richardson Dumel, told AFP he was not anticipating major repercussions from the slow start, and expected delays would be “made up over the course of the day.”
Postponed by a crisis between Haiti’s executive power and opposition, the elections will determine all members of the Chamber of Deputies and two-thirds of its Senate.
Parliament was dissolved on January 13, 2015 after lawmakers’ terms were not extended, and legislative chambers have remained empty for months.
More than 1,800 candidates from a dizzying 128 registered parties are vying for 139 posts in the two houses.
Some lower house seats, particularly in Port-au-Prince, have as many as 30 candidates in the fray.
The CEP has asked the numerous representatives to draw lots so that only five are simultaneously present, creating a source of friction across many of the stations.
“They do not let us come in,” one woman yelled in Port-au-Prince, accusing polling authorities of choosing other parties’ representatives to allow in.
“It’s not acceptable, they want to steal the election.”
– ‘Climate of terror’ –
Ahead of the election, campaigning was marred by partisan violence.
In a report last Wednesday, the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) described a “climate of terror.”
It recorded nine armed clashes, five murders, two attempted murders, seven people wounded by guns, two stabbings, 17 injured from stones “and 10 cases of beatings.”
On Saturday, police arrested some 20 people in central Haiti for possession of illegal arms.
More than 7,000 police have been deployed across the country on polling day, supported by 2,500 UN police and 2,370 peacekeepers from the UN stabilization mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH.
Turnout is not expected to top 15 percent, according to pre-election surveys. In the second round of the 2011 presidential elections, it was less than 25 percent.
A total of 5.8 million people are registered to vote out of a population of around 10.3 million.
Sunday is only the first of three polling days before the end of the year.
Between now and then, Haiti will elect nearly all of its political representatives: deputies, senators, mayors, local officials and a president.
If all goes according to schedule, lawmakers will take office on January 11, 2016 and Martelly will hand over power to his successor on February 7, 2016.
Martelly and other top politicians have pleaded for calm.
“We are a non-violent people,” Dumel said.
“Haitians are going to be able to choose their representatives without fear, and this democratic process is the only way for the country to move forward.”