Port-au-Prince: Haiti votes on Sunday in elections roiled by a cholera epidemic, political tensions and voter confusion, seeking a leader to guide the impoverished Caribbean country`s recovery from a January earthquake.
The international community hopes the vote to select a new president and Parliament and a third of the Senate can lead to a stable, legitimate government capable of administering billions of dollars of reconstruction aid pledged by donors.
Representing this world support, blue-helmeted UN peacekeepers are helping Haiti`s police to secure and protect more than 11,000 polling stations set up in schools, prefabricated wooden huts and even in tents in crowded quake survivors` camps.
But with political tensions flaring, and rebuilding after the devastating January earthquake seemingly paralyzed by the advancing deadly cholera epidemic, many fear a contentious turbulent election may just drive Haiti deeper into turmoil.
A clutch of front-runners -- a Sorbonne-educated opposition matriarch, a government technocrat who is a protégé of outgoing President Rene Preval, and a charismatic entertainer and musician -- lead a varied field of 18 presidential candidates.
Although opinion polls have put 70-year-old former first lady Mirlande Manigat ahead, the lack of a clear favourite has increased the likelihood of the contest going to a deciding January 16 runoff between the two top vote-winners.
The biggest protagonists on Sunday may turn out to be apathy, confusion and fears of violence, which could keep many of the 4.7 million registered voters at home in a country whose shattered infrastructure deters easy movement.
Added to that is the raging cholera epidemic which has killed some 2,000 people, according to UN officials, and sickened tens of thousands as it stalks across the country.
But there were Haitians who said they were anxious to vote, seeing the nationwide ballot as a way to help usher in a better future after this year`s succession of calamities adding to Haiti`s sad history of natural and man-made disasters such as uprisings and corrupt dictatorships.
"The schools have crumbled, there is no work. We want school and university and work ... and now cholera has destroyed Haiti. I`m going to vote, because I`m a citizen and I have the right," said Rodrigue Elarion, 32, who is unemployed.
`Worst year in Haiti`s history`
Calling 2010 the "worst year in Haiti`s history", outgoing President Preval, who cannot stand again after serving two terms, called on Haitians to vote in peace and shun violence.
Manigat has been tracked in opinion polls by Jude Celestin, 48, candidate of Preval`s Inite (Unity) coalition, and Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, 49, a star of Haiti`s Kompa dance music, whose rallies have drawn supporters in droves.
Another candidate, lawyer Jean-Henry Ceant, 54, could make a strong showing if he galvanises supporters of exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In the charged election atmosphere, Manigat has accused Inite supporters of planning fraud, while Martelly`s campaign said their candidate escaped unhurt from a late Friday shooting by gunmen they linked to the ruling coalition.
Sporadic violence, including ambushes of campaign caravans, random gunfire and attacks by rioters against Nepalese UN peacekeepers whom some Haitians accuse of bringing in the cholera, has killed several people and compounded the organisational confusion surrounding the elections.
The United Nations says there is no conclusive evidence the Nepalese troops are the source of the disease outbreak.
Hours before polls were due to open at 6 am (6 am ET), many frustrated voters complained they had no idea where they were supposed to cast their ballots. Others were still lining up to get the national identity cards they needed to vote.
But Haiti`s government, the United Nations peacekeeping mission and international observers have put a brave face on the daunting challenges. They all argue it is better for the elections to go ahead as scheduled than to risk a chaotic political vacuum by postponing them.
"Everything is ready, now what we need is voters," said Edmond Mulet, head of the UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
"All our troops, police and resources have been deployed everywhere in the country. We are ready to assist the Haitian police and to protect the population," he added, saying election materials had been distributed to polling stations.
Electoral observers and experts from the Organisation of American States, the Caribbean Community, the association of Francophone states, the European Union and several European countries are in Haiti to observe and support the elections.