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Haiti held a long-delayed election on Sunday amid scenes of devastation in parts of the country, with voters hoping a new president will lift the economy after a destructive hurricane and more than a year of political instability. First held in October 2015, the election was annulled over allegations of fraud, and a rescheduled vote was postponed last month when Hurricane Matthew struck, killing up to 1,000 people and leaving 1.4 million needing humanitarian aid.
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Homes, schools and farms across southwestern Haiti all bear the scars of Matthew, which piled fresh misery onto the nation of more than 10 million on the western half of the island of Hispaniola still recovering from a major earthquake in 2010.
“We are in a political crisis. We need an elected government to get out of this situation,” said 19-year-old Launes Delmazin as he voted for the first time in a school in Les Cayes, a southwestern port ravaged by Matthew last month.
Polling stations were due to open at 6 a.m. local time (1100 GMT), although some were slow to do so. Some people in the capital, Port-au-Prince, complained they were unable to vote because their names did not appear on lists at the stations.
Still, early indications from electoral observers suggested the balloting was proceeding more smoothly than last year.
More than two dozen candidates are competing to succeed Michel Martelly, who left the presidency in February. Since then, a caretaker government has run the country.
Local opinion polls are viewed with skepticism by civil society groups, though a recent survey by pollster BRIDES made local entrepreneur Jovenel Moise the favorite to take the presidency for Martelly’s Bald Heads Party in the first round.
Among his competitors are the onetime boss of a government construction company, Jude Celestin, former senator Moise Jean-Charles, and Maryse Narcisse, a doctor backed by ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
The Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) said on Thursday preliminary results of the vote are not expected until Monday.
Unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote or wins by at least 25 percentage points, a second round run-off is in prospect for the top two finishers on Jan. 29. The victor is scheduled to take office in February.
Officials said the lingering effects of the hurricane risk depressing voter turnout in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where democratic participation is generally low. Haiti’s political leaders urged people to get out and vote.
“Today is the day when the Haitian people are called to choose between chaos, anarchy or political stability,” said interim President Jocelerme Privert, who is not running.
In Damassin on the southern coast, house after house was covered with tarpaulin, downed trees lined roads and the polling center, a school, was filled with debris and had no roof, forcing officials to move the vote to a small blue tent outside.
“The country has been destroyed,” said Luc Albert Jean-Claude, a 74-year-old farmer casting his vote in Damassin. “We want the country to return to a normal state.”
To safeguard voting in a country with a history of electoral violence, around 13,000 officers from the national police and the United Nations were mobilized for Sunday.
Justice Minister Camille Edouard told Reuters “at least a dozen” people had been arrested on suspicion of trying to commit electoral fraud or tamper with the process.
However, OCID, a group observing the elections, said in a initial review that most polling stations were operating normally and that they had logged less than a quarter the number of complaints registered at this point in October 2015.