- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Scuffles broke out and polling stations opened hours late yesterday as masses of Haitians waited — sometimes in mile-long lines — to vote under the protection of U.N. peacekeepers crouching behind machine guns and patrolling alongside armored vehicles.

Outside the gang-controlled Cite Soleil slum, frustrated voters pounded on empty ballot boxes and chanted, “It’s time for Cite Soleil to vote.”

Rene Preval, a 63-year-old former president backed by many poor Haitians, was the front-runner, according to pre-election polls. In an interview with the Associated Press, he said, “People are investing everything in this election.”

Turnout for the vote — called a key step toward steering this bloodied, impoverished nation away from collapse — all but overwhelmed electoral officials.

At dawn, when the 800 polling stations were supposed to open, it immediately became apparent the day would not go smoothly. In the upscale Petionville suburb of the capital, members of a crowd of thousands of voters stormed a voting station. Several women fainted.

“The people have voted massively,” Juan Gabriel Valdes, a U.N. special envoy, said after election officials extended the voting period by several hours.

Government officials sought to maintain calm, assuring Haitians that everyone would have a chance to vote. By midafternoon, the process appeared more orderly. U.N. troops were deployed in force to calm the crowds.

Election authorities said the problems were largely limited to Port-au-Prince. By early afternoon, all polling places across this country of 8.3 million were open, said U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst.

“Voting operations [in the countryside] are normal, with some exceptions,” said Electoral Council President Max Mathurin.

Most voters waited patiently in lines for hours at polling stations in the capital, but some angrily roamed the streets, fuming at being turned away because of myriad problems.

“If these elections are not fair, and if the person whom the population wants doesn’t win, houses will burn and heads will be cut off,” said Jean Pierre, an unemployed 33-year-old man who would not give his last name.

Stephane Lacroix, a spokes-man for Haiti’s Electoral Council, said four persons died yesterday at polling stations throughout the country.

Mr. Wimhurst blamed the problems on poor planning and a lack of trained workers.

“Some polling workers didn’t show up for work, so we’re going to grab people from the crowd, give them some quick training and get them in there,” he said.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue said polls would remain open as long as possible. “Every Haitian will have a chance to vote,” he said.

Mules transported some election materials to areas where U.N. helicopters were unable to land.

The vote has been postponed four times since October because of security problems and trouble distributing elections materials.

If no candidate wins a majority, a March 19 runoff would be held between the top two candidates.

Many supporters of former PresidentJean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted for a second time in a bloody rebellion two years ago, back Mr. Preval.

Other top contenders are Charles Henri Baker, 50, whose family runs factories that assembles clothing for export, and Leslie Manigat, 75, who was president for five months in 1988 until the army ousted him.

Also running are a former rebel in the insurgency that forced Mr. Aristide from office in February 2004 and a former army officer accused in the death of a Haitian journalist.

In the aftermath of a February 2004 rebellion that toppled Mr. Aristide, gangs have gone on a kidnapping spree and the country’s few factories are closing because of security problems and a lack of foreign investment.

U.S. officials have warned that a collapse could trigger another wave of Haitians migrating aboard boats to the United States. That occurred in 1994, prompting Washington to send troops to Haiti to restore Mr. Aristide to power, three years after he fell to a military coup.

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