PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The death toll from Haiti’s spreading cholera epidemic topped 300 on Wednesday as fears over violence and fair voting clouded the path to elections next month which are seen as key to stability in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest nation.
Electoral officials still say the presidential and legislative polls will go ahead as scheduled on November 28, despite the cholera outbreak which has killed more than 300 people and sickened more than 4,700 since last week, triggering a major multinational treatment and prevention operation.
“On November 28, at 6 a.m., the polls will open,” Pierre-Louis Opont, director general of Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council, told Reuters. But one presidential candidate has said that if the epidemic of the deadly diarrhea disease reaches national proportions, the polls should be postponed.
The World Health Organization said earlier the epidemic’s unusually high death rate was slowing.
But figures issued later on Wednesday by Haiti’s health ministry showed the cholera outbreak was spreading, with cases confirmed in two new provinces, Nord-Est and Nord, besides the initial outbreak zones in Artibonite and Center provinces.
The ministry reported 303 dead and 4,722 cases in all.
Even before the cholera outbreak triggered Haiti’s latest national emergency following the devastating January 12 earthquake, doubts had emerged over whether the upcoming polls could deliver a credible, legitimate new leadership for the disaster — and turmoil — prone Caribbean nation.
Suspected cholera cases were also reported at L’Arcahaie, 30 miles by road north of Port-au-Prince, adding to fears the epidemic would reach the crowded quake-hit capital.
Next month’s vote will elect a successor to President Rene Preval, a new 99-member parliament and 11 new members of the 30-seat Senate, choosing leaders to steer Haiti’s recovery from the crippling quake that wrecked the capital Port-au-Prince and killed more than a quarter of a million people.
These may be the most important elections in Haiti’s history, the Brussels-based think tank, International Crisis Group, said in a report released on Wednesday that saw a “thorny path toward polling day”.
Fears of campaign violence have increased after an attack late on Monday by suspected armed bandits on a bus carrying journalists to a rally by leading presidential candidate Jacques-Edouard Alexis in northern Haiti. The bus driver was killed and police said they later killed one of the attackers.
Besides the disruptive cholera epidemic, Haiti’s polarizing politics and lack of public confidence in the electoral authorities, who are seen favoring outgoing president Preval and his proteges, are already challenging the credibility of the elections.
“Haiti’s population needs to see significant steps in the next month, so that all eligible citizens can vote, their ballots are counted, and their choice of the next government accelerates a reconstruction that improves their lives and their families’ future,” the International Crisis Group said.
“If the elections fail on these fronts, it is all too likely that stability will suffer, the investments the economy needs will dry up, and the humanitarian crisis will deepen,” the organization added.
The United Nations, which maintains a 12,000-strong peacekeeping force in Haiti, has said it can guarantee security for the elections, which will also be closely observed by the Organization of American States and other groups.
But U.N. officials express concerns about reports of arms entering Haiti and being distributed to political activists.
With frustration and uncertainty about the future running high among destitute earthquake survivors, more than one million of whom are living in crowded tent camps in the capital now menaced by the cholera epidemic, the International Crisis Group said social unrest remained a real threat.
“Recovery has stalled at the relief stage, donors have been slow to make good many of their pledges, and what achievements there have been have not been well communicated to the victims, who have little confidence about what comes next,” it said.
Popular fears about the outbreak of cholera, a disease absent from Haiti for decades, also exacerbated tensions.
A group of stone-throwing local residents, apparently fearful of contagion, demonstrated violently on Tuesday against a cholera treatment center being set up by the medical charity Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) in Saint-Marc in the main central Artibonite outbreak region, MSF and local media said.
On Monday at Dajabon on the Haiti-Dominican Republic border, U.N. peacekeepers fired into the air to prevent Haitians from crossing over to a farmers’ market which had been suspended as a health precaution by Dominican authorities, media in the Dominican Republic reported.
With 19 candidates approved for the Haitian presidential contest, after the exclusion on eligibility grounds of 15 others, including popular Haitian-American hip hop star Wyclef Jean, there appeared to be no clear favorite for the job.
International Crisis Group said the candidates’ list covered a wide range of opinion, including supporters of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. It saw no presidential candidate likely to win outright in the initial November 28 round.
Besides Alexis, 63, a former two-time prime minister, another visible frontrunner is Jude Celestin, a 48-year-old engineer and candidate for Preval’s ruling Inite platform.
Also running is opposition figure Mirlande Manigat, 69, a former First Lady. Known Aristide supporters on the ballot include notary Jean-Henri Ceant, 54, and former minister Yves Cristalin, 41, backed by members of Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party that was barred from the polls by electoral authorities.
Preval denies accusations of meddling in the poll process.
The close race raised the prospect of a disputed contest, International Crisis Group said, which could even delay the holding of a second round of voting, provisionally scheduled for January 16, days after the 1st anniversary of the earthquake.
Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher in Miami, Manuel Jimenez in Santo Domingo, Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Anthony Boadle and Jim Marshall