PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Haiti is limping toward elections in February after more than two months of delays and with critics charging the country still is not ready and that residents of some remote areas will have to walk for five hours to vote.
Beleaguered U.N. officials responsible for organizing the vote -- which is expected to elect a former ally of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide -- counter that the complaints are exaggerated and that no one will have to walk more than four miles.
The elections come two years after U.S. Marines whisked Mr. Aristide into exile in Africa amid an armed rebellion. Since then, the hemisphere's poorest country has grown even poorer while violence has ravaged Port-au-Prince despite the presence of 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers.
Acting President Boniface Alexandre issued a decree on Jan. 7 setting the date for the first round of national elections as Feb. 7, with a second round scheduled for March 19 and local balloting planned for April 30.
The electoral calendar has already been pushed back between two and four times -- depending on who is counting -- but U.N. and government officials say they are confident that the latest dates will stick.
"Feb. 7 is not negotiable," said Jean Junior Joseph, spokesman for Prime Minister Gerard Latortue. "The elections will take place no matter what."
The clear-cut favorite in the race is Rene Preval, president from 1996 to 2001, who is despised by sectors of the elite but popular among the poor who saw him as an honest and efficient administrator.
Mr. Preval is perceived to be an ally of Mr. Aristide, a former priest who campaigned as a champion of the disenfranchised, although the two have been estranged in recent years.
The repeated postponement of the elections was a result mainly of delays in the distribution of voter-identification cards, which now have been provided to nearly 60 percent of the 3.5 million registered voters.
But critics charge that the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) is so plagued by partisanship and incompetence that it may not be capable of holding free and fair elections.
"We could be in for a fiasco on Feb. 7," said Patrick Fequiere, a member of the CEP who is highly critical of his colleagues. "I can understand the [U.N.] Security Council wanting to get these elections over with, but we're still not ready."
Mr. Fequiere and others point to problems with the 804 voting centers designated by the U.N. peacekeeping mission. They say that many voters have been assigned to the wrong center and others must walk too far because there are not enough centers.
A Dec. 27 report issued by Washington-based IFES, which is observing the elections with USAID funds, says the accessibility issue "threatens to disenfranchise thousands of voters."
The report says some people will have to walk as many as five hours to vote. But Gerardo Le Chevallier, chief of elections for the United Nations, said, "The most people will have to walk is 6 kilometers" -- about 3.75 miles.
"The fact that 2 million cards have been distributed, all 800 voting centers have been identified, we have all the electoral material, and we've recruited nearly 12,000 electoral voting-table workers means that we are ready to hold these elections," he said.
Another CEP member, Rosemond Pradel, said: "The only thing that could stop the elections right now is violence."
Port-au-Prince has suffered a surge in kidnappings that has alarmed Haiti's small-but-influential middle and upper classes. Violence also has worsened in the immense slum of Cite Soleil, where armed groups battle daily with U.N. peacekeepers.
Prominent members of the Haitian elite have called for the peacekeepers to crack down on the armed groups in Cite Soleil. But U.N. and Haitian police officials say that while many kidnapping victims are brought to Cite Soleil, the masterminds live elsewhere and some may be found among the nearly three dozen presidential candidates.