Haitians leery of 2nd election round amid violence

Election officials are flying street banners and sending text messages to encourage a big turnout for Sunday’s hotly anticipated Senate run-offs, but many are uncertain if they will vote in an atmosphere of increasing violence and political tension.

Eleven vacant seats in the 30-member Senate are on the line, and with them, President Rene Preval’s hopes of overpowering uncooperative legislators and pushing through internationally backed economic reforms and constitutional amendments that would give his successors more power.

But many Haitians are wary of voting following weeks of clashes, at least one of them deadly, between anti-government protesters and security forces, as well as fights between political parties that have left at least two people dead in provincial areas.

“If I wake up and I see that the state isn’t providing security at 100 percent, I might not go and vote,” said Marcel James, 33, a security guard at a Port-au-Prince bank.

The unrest is fueled by political tension, including some early jockeying for next year’s planned presidential elections, as well as wrangling between the president and parliament over a proposal to increase the minimum wage. Tensions also surround the presence of 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers, who have been in Haiti since the 2004 rebellion that overthrew former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Despite the current situation, election officials are trying to improve on the paltry 11 percent turnout in the first round of voting on April 19. That round was noted for its empty ballot boxes and sleeping poll workers. Isolated intimidation and violence also forced the cancellation of voting in one of 10 administrative regions.

Public transportation, suspended in the first round, will run Sunday. Alcohol sales have been banned. And U.N. peacekeepers have fanned out across mountains and crumbling highways to help Haitian police guard schools and other polling centers.

“We will break up any protest that comes, because no protests have been allowed,” said Frantz Lerebours, Haitian national police spokesman.

On Wednesday, student protesters burned a U.N. vehicle. On Thursday, a young man was killed as mourners and U.N. peacekeepers confronted each other during a funeral procession for a popular priest closely linked with Aristide. The death is under investigation.

The first round of voting heavily favored Preval’s Lespwa movement. Those results were heavily criticized by influential opposition lawmakers who allege fraud and have threatened to disregard winning candidates.

Pressure also comes from Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party, which Haiti’s provisional electoral council barred from elections on a technicality. The council demanded documents signed by Aristide, who has been living in South African exile for five years.

In turn, Lavalas called for a boycott of the polls, which it partially credited for the first round’s poor turnout. The boycott remains in effect on Sunday.

The U.S. and Canadian embassies, along with the United Nations and Organization of American States, initially balked at the council’s decision to block Lavalas, but kept quiet after the Preval-appointed council left the party’s candidates off the ballots following a brief reconsideration.

“Lavalas never delivered on this one. Our point was simple: Give them one more chance,” Canadian Ambassador Gilles Rivard told The Associated Press last week. “I sincerely hope that for the next round of elections, (Lavalas) will be represented.”

The United States, Canada and other donors gave $12.5 million to support the first round of elections, but only 340 international observers were hired to monitor 9,400 polling stations. About the same number are expected this round.

Officials in recent days hung street banners to remind people of their right to vote, while an SMS message sent by the service provider Voila on Saturday offered voters a number to text back and confirm their polling place.

The focus on turnout is a contrast from April, when Preval told a joint news conference with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that, “People are called upon to vote, but they are not obliged to.” He then quickly expressed his hope that many people would vote.

Few did.

Dady Pierre, 35, a wristwatch repairman, said he will stay home on Sunday morning and listen to the radio and neighborhood gossip before deciding whether to venture out to vote.

“Whenever there are elections in Haiti there is violence,” he said. “It’s something normal.”



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