After repeated delays, hurricane-hit Haiti to hold presidential vote

A man walks next to a billboard of presidential candidate Jovenel Moise, of PHTK (Bald Head Haitian Party), in a street of Port-au-Prince, Haiti

By Makini Brice

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) – Haitians vote in a long-delayed presidential election on Sunday that islanders hope will stabilize the impoverished nation and help it get back on its feet after a devastating hurricane last month.

The struggling islanders, despite skepticism, look for the election to bring an end to a year of political uncertainty and deliver a president who can unite a nation already battered by a 2010 earthquake, lift the economy and create jobs.

Up to 1,000 people died in Hurricane Matthew, which also wiped out crops and revived cholera outbreaks in the hard-hit southwestern region. It left up to 1.4 million people in need of humanitarian relief.

Many feel angry about the slow pace of aid in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and many expect lingering hurricane damage to depress voter turnout.

“Everyone talks about the elections. There’s not yet a candidate I will vote for,” said Joseph Jeanvinil, who works at a sanitarium in the southwestern port of Les Cayes.

“I’m still in the same house that has been destroyed. I haven’t found money for that yet,” he said, referring to the destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew.

Originally held in October 2015, the presidential vote was scrapped after protesters and politicians complained of rampant fraud. As a result, former President Michel Martelly left office in February with no elected successor, leaving the country in the hands of a transition government.

Among more than two dozen candidates competing for the top job are Jude Celestin, who ran a government construction company, and Moise Jean-Charles, a former senator.

Unless a candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote, or an advantage of at least 25 percent over the second-place candidate, the two top finishers move to a second round run-off scheduled for Jan. 29. The winner is expected to take office in late February.

A recent survey by polling firm BRIDES showed that local entrepreneur Jovenel Moise, a relative political newcomer, could be elected president in the first round for Martelly’s Bald Heads Party. Nevertheless, civil society groups say polls in Haiti are notoriously unreliable.

“The key question is whether the candidates who will not make it to the second round accept the results as legitimate,” said Robert Fatton, a political analyst who studies Haiti at the University of Virginia.

“I have serious doubts about this. So we may be headed to another post-electoral crisis.”

Some voting centers damaged by the storm will be replaced with tents, but officials say they are on track to hold the vote, which includes some parliamentary and local elections.

Since the hurricane, police and U.N. forces have assisted aid convoys, which have been attacked by desperate residents.

“Tensions could be exacerbated in the run-up to the upcoming elections as the delivery of assistance is expected to slow down,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in a recent report.

Security forces are being redirected to the polls, as Haitian elections have tended to be marked by unrest.

Former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide made statements to supporters two weeks ago that critics interpreted as a call for violence if his party’s candidate, Maryse Narcisse, did not win.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva; Editing by Simon Gardner and Dan Grebler)