Haitians vote hoping to restore constitutional order

Port-au-Prince (AFP) - Haitians go to the polls Sunday to elect a president and lawmakers, in hopes of restoring the country to constitutional order after more than a year of political crisis.

Nearly 6.2 million voters are eligible to cast their ballots to choose among a vast field of 27 presidential candidates.

The Caribbean nation -- the poorest in the Americas -- had a brutal struggle to end slavery and colonialism followed by decades of corrupt autocracy and, in recent years, a series of crippling natural disasters.

Coming three decades after the fall of the Duvalier dictatorships, Sunday's delayed polls for president and part of parliament could mark a chance to start building the institutions of constitutional rule.

But many challenges -- poverty, civil unrest, corruption and the lingering effects of the 2010 earthquake, a cholera epidemic and last month's severe hurricane -- remain to cloud the poll.

The first round of the presidential election was scheduled for October 9, but was delayed after devastating Hurricane Matthew pummeled the country on October 4.

Sunday's vote originally had been set for October 2015, but it was scrapped over claims of massive fraud.

The cancellation prevented President Michel Martelly, a popular singer elected in May 2011, from transferring power to his successor, picked by popular vote, by February 7 as the Haitian constitution requires.

Martelly had won the 2011 runoff vote only after his opponent Jude Celestin was disqualified for alleged fraud.

Last year, the tables were turned when Celestin refused to accept his apparent first-round defeat to Martelly's handpicked successor, agricultural baron Jovenel Moise.

An independent panel eventually agreed with the opposition that Moise's win was tainted by massive fraud and the poll results were thrown out -- creating a power vacuum when Martelly's mandate expired in February.

Parliament chose Senate chief Jocelerme Privert as interim head of state -- initially for a mandate of three months -- but, amid civil unrest and political infighting, new polls were delayed.

- Turning a corner? -

Though there is a long list of presidential hopefuls, in reality only a handful have a chance of making it past the first round.

The wealthy Moise has the support of Martelly's camp and his PHTK party and Celestin, backed by the opposition LAPEH, remains his main threat.

To their left, the populist Moise Jean-Charles of the "Children of Dessalines" movement hopes his high profile in anti-Martelly protests will carry the day.

And the campaign of Maryse Narcisse has attracted attention, since she represents the Fanmi Lavalas party of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, still a hero to many of Haiti's poor.

Any candidate who wins more than half of the votes cast on Sunday will be the victor. Otherwise, the runoff will go ahead as planned on January 29.

And much will depend on who can turn out his or her own supporters -- turnout is not expected to be high in a country that has learned not to expect too much from its own rulers.

Last year, barely a quarter of those eligible to vote turned out and their votes were voided when the tainted poll was ruled invalid.

Sandra Honore, head of the United Nations mission in Haiti, urged voters to the polls.

"I hope this November 20 electoral process will unfold correctly," she said.

"I believe that, even with a certain frustration about the representation provided by elected officials, that will be a moment for the Haitian population to indicate very clearly what they want."

The United States, Haiti's neighbor to the north, praised the government's "commendable" efforts to organize the elections in the wake of the hurricane.

"We urge all Haitian actors to ensure that the election is peaceful and fair,to allow citizens to cast a vote for their future, and for that of the country," said State Department spokesman John Kirby.