Haiti run-off was mostly calm, counting underway

Haitians voted on Sunday to elect president for their quake-scarred country.

Port-au-Prince: Haitians voted on Sunday to elect a president for their earthquake-scarred country, choosing between a singer and a former first lady in a run-off called generally peaceful by officials and observers.

After polls closed in the Caribbean state, one of the world`s poorest, election officers began counting votes, in many cases by lamplight as much of the capital Port-au-Prince, and much of the whole nation, has no electricity.

Preliminary results are not officially due to be announced until the end of the month.

Haiti`s top electoral officer, Gaillot Dorsinvil, hailed what he called a large voter turnout in the first presidential run-off in the volatile country, where elections have often been marred by fraud and violence.

The close race presented Haiti`s 4.7 million voters with a choice between a political newcomer, extrovert entertainer and singer Michel Martelly, 50, and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, 70, a law professor and opposition matriarch.

Recent opinion polls showed Martelly ahead of Manigat.

Police and local officials said two people were killed in electoral violence, one in the central Artibonite region and one at Mare Rouge in the northwest. Police had earlier reported two deaths in Artibonite but later revised the figure to one.

UN peacekeepers intervened in scattered incidents, firing in the air in one place to separate fighting rival supporters.

But, despite delays caused by initially missing electoral materials, especially at polling stations in the capital Port-au-Prince, international observers said voting seemed to have gone much more smoothly than the chaotic first round on November 28, which dissolved into fraud allegations and unrest.

"It was generally peaceful and calm, although we had isolated incidents," Sylvie van den Wildenberg, spokesperson for the UN peacekeeping mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), said.

"So far, it`s encouraging," she added, noting that no immediate fraud claims or protests followed the day of voting. The streets of the capital Port-au-Prince appeared quiet.

International donors hope the run-off vote can elect a capable, legitimate leadership to steer a post-quake reconstruction that requires billions of dollars of aid.

Many polling stations in the capital did not open on time because materials, such as ink to mark voters` fingers and ballot papers, did not arrive early. But as the day progressed, these problems were mostly resolved, officials said.

While polling centres in most of Haiti closed as scheduled at 4 pm (2100 GMT), voting was extended by one hour in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area to make up for the delays.

The counting of ballots was due to begin immediately, but under Haiti`s election law, the Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP, is only scheduled to announce preliminary results on March 31, and confirm the final results on April 16.

Long wait for results

There are fears the long wait could cause impatience and possible protests, but CEP officials said both candidates have agreed to make no victory declarations and hold no rallies until the first results were announced -- no easy task in a country known for its inflammatory politics.

Outgoing president Rene Preval appealed for calm. "I hope ... the results won`t have any trouble," he told reporters.

Both candidates voted in the capital. Martelly, who has promised to change a country weary of corruption and mismanagement, was mobbed by cheering supporters.

"We are living a historic moment, I feel the enthusiasm and I am delighted change has finally come," he said.

UN troops protected voting centres with local police, and UN armoured vehicles rumbled through the capital`s streets, many still strewn with debris left from last year`s quake.

Voters expressed satisfaction after casting their ballots, but some said they would watch out for fraud.

In a confused incident on the eve of the vote, Haitian-American hip hop star Wyclef Jean, who backs Martelly, suffered a minor hand injury.

His spokeswoman said a bullet grazed his palm, but Vanel Lacroix, police chief in Petionville where Jean is staying, said he had suffered a cut to his hand from glass.

Bureau Report

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