Haitians pick president in generally peaceful vote

PORT-AU-PRINCE Sun Mar 20, 2011 7:04pm EDT

1 of 14. A voter's finger is marked with black ink signifying that he has already casted his vote in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince March 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Swoan Parker

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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haitians voted in large numbers on Sunday to elect a president for their earthquake-scarred country, choosing between a singer and a former first lady in a generally peaceful run-off.

Haiti's top electoral officer, Gaillot Dorsinvil, hailed what he called the large turnout of voters in the first presidential run-off vote in the Caribbean nation, 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, energetic 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 three people were killed in electoral violence, two in the central Artibonite region and one at Mare Rouge in the northwest. U.N. peacekeepers intervened in scattered incidents, firing in the air in one location 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.

"All in all it looked like a much better day ... I think it was a more relaxed atmosphere, despite the material problems," Ambassador Colin Granderson, head of the Organization of American States/Caribbean Community election observer mission in Haiti, told Reuters.

International donors hope the run-off vote can elect a capable, legitimate leadership in one of the world's poorest nations 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 centers in most of Haiti closed as scheduled at 4 p.m. (5 p.m. EDT), voting was extended by one hour in the Port-au-Prince metropolitan area to make up for the delays.

LONG WAIT FOR RESULTS

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.

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 volatile 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 when he cast his vote in the Petionville district.

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

U.N. troops protected voting centers with local police, and U.N. armored 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. "The task is not over, we remain vigilant," said Michel Magloire, 35.

"We are hoping for a better life ... but only God knows," said another voter, Adeline Hyppolite, 50, whose husband had been disabled in the earthquake.

Weighing on many Haitians' minds as they voted was the reappearance of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who arrived back from exile on Friday.

The return of the left-wing populist, who still commands a big following in Haiti, was opposed by the United States and United Nations as potentially disruptive. But Aristide is not a candidate and aides have said he will stay out of politics.

Aristide, who was driven into exile by a 2004 rebellion, has not clearly endorsed any candidate and he made no public statement on Sunday.

Many voters said if Aristide, revered as a champion of the poor, had been a candidate, they would have voted for him.

A confused incident on the eve of the vote involving Haitian-American hip hop star Wyclef Jean, who backs Martelly, led to a report that Jean had been shot in the hand.

But Vanel Lacroix, police chief in Petionville where Jean is staying, said he had suffered only a minor cut to his hand from glass in an apparent accident.

(Additional reporting by Faradjine Alfred; Editing by Kieran Murray)