Port-au-Prince (AFP) – After nearly four years of delays, Haiti staged legislative elections Sunday in a vote overshadowed by fears of violence and poor turnout in the impoverished Caribbean nation.
Polling stations opened at 6:00 am (1000 GMT) for the first time since President Michel Martelly came to power in May 2011.
But many voters in both the capital Port-au-Prince and other cities had to wait more than an hour before they could even enter, with polling personnel struggling 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.”
The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti 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 shattered the nation’s infrastructure.
The elections — long postponed by a crisis between Haiti’s executive power and opposition — 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.
A total of 5.8 million people are registered to vote in a population of around 10.3 million.
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.
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday urged Haitians to cast their vote.
“These long-awaited elections constitute a major milestone for democracy in Haiti,” he said through his spokesman.
But turnout is not expected to top 15 percent, according to pre-election surveys. In the second round of the 2011 presidential elections, it was under 25 percent.
“We’re holding out hope to raise this participation rate. We hope to get to at least 20 percent,” said Jose Enrique Castillo Barrantes, mission chief with the Organization of American States (OAS), which is monitoring the poll along with the European Union.
– ‘Climate of terror’ –
Campaigning in Haiti ahead of the election has been 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.”
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.
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 personnel: deputies, senators, mayors, local officials and a president.
If all goes according to schedule, elected legislators 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.”