Postponing Haiti polls could threaten stability: EU

PORT-AU-PRINCE Mon Nov 22, 2010 3:38pm EST

A resident looks on next to presidential election posters of Jude Celestin in Port-au-Prince October 30, 2010. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

A resident looks on next to presidential election posters of Jude Celestin in Port-au-Prince October 30, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Eduardo Munoz

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - A raging cholera epidemic in Haiti may deter some voters from participating in Sunday's national elections, but postponing or canceling the polls could threaten stability in the Caribbean country, the European Union's envoy said on Monday.

The month-old epidemic has killed 1,344 people in the earthquake-ravaged nation as of Friday. With the death toll still climbing, some Haitian presidential candidates have openly called for the elections to be postponed.

The outbreak of the deadly diarrheal disease, affecting 8 out of 10 provinces, has heaped misery on Haiti's population of 10 million which is still struggling to recover from a January 12 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people.

Lut Fabert, head of the EU diplomatic mission in Haiti, told reporters that while fear of cholera could keep some away from polling stations, this should not be a deterrent to the presidential and legislative elections.

"At the moment, the EU sees no obstacle blocking these elections from happening," she told a news conference along with EU experts who are supporting the Haitian polls.

"The most important thing is that the process advances according to the rules and that there is a good participation of the population," Fabert added.

Cholera is basically spread by contaminated water and food, rather than person-to-person contact, and Fabert said voters needed to be assured that just gathering in one place to cast their ballots would not infect them with the disease.

Hand sanitizers would be in place at polling stations to protect hygiene, she added.

Fabert said she was confident the more than 12,000-strong United Nations peacekeeping contingent in Haiti could guarantee security for the elections, despite several days of anti-U.N. riots last week in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.

At least two people were killed and dozens were injured in the clashes between U.N. troops and protesters, who blame Nepalese U.N. peacekeepers for bringing the cholera to Haiti.

The U.N. mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) says there is no conclusive evidence to support this charge.

Despite the big health, security and logistical challenges facing the November 28 elections [ID:nN22201246], the international community fears their postponement or cancellation could create a dangerous political vacuum that could be exploited by criminal or destabilizing forces in Haiti.

"To not have elections now could jeopardize political stability in Haiti," Fabert said.

The European Union is providing 5 million euros ($7 million) to finance the organization of the elections and a team of seven European electoral experts were supporting the polls, said team leader Marie Violette Cesar.

But the EU team would not act as a formal observer mission because they could not cover the entire country, she added.

A joint observation mission from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community said in a report on Friday that preparations for the polls were "on track".

But it said challenges remained, acknowledging the cholera epidemic could impact voter participation.

Sunday's vote will choose a successor to President Rene Preval -- who cannot stand for re-election -- appoint a 99-member parliament and 11 members of the 30-seat Senate.

The presidential contest has 19 candidates including several frontrunners, but no clear favorite, meaning the vote could go to a second round in January.

(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Jackie Frank)