Haitians head to polls

After nearly four years of delays, Haiti staged legislative elections Sunday in a vote overshadowed by fears of violence and poor turnout.
Polling stations opened at 6:00 am (1000 GMT) for the first time since President Michel Martelly came to power in May 2011.

The poorest country in the Americas, Haiti suffers from a history of chronic instability and is still struggling to recover from the devastating 2010 earthquake.

The disaster killed more than 250,000 people and shattered much of the Caribbean nation's infrastructure.

Long postponed by a crisis between Haiti's executive power and opposition, the elections will determine all members of the Chamber of Deputies and two-thirds of its Senate.

But potential violence, huge numbers of candidates and a traditionally low turnout pose big challenges.

A total of 5.8 million people are registered to vote in a population of around 10.3 million.

No fewer than 128 registered political parties and 1,855 candidates are vying for 139 slots.

Some lower house seats, particularly in the capital Port-au-Prince, have as many as 30 candidates.

UN chief Ban Ki-moon on Saturday urged Haitians to cast their vote.

"These long-awaited elections constitute a major milestone for democracy in Haiti," he said through his spokesman.

But turnout is not expected to top 15 percent, according to pre-election surveys. In the second round of the 2011 presidential elections, it was under 25 percent.

"We're holding out hope to raise this participation rate. We hope to get to at least 20 percent," said Jose Enrique Castillo Barrantes, mission chief with the Organization of American States (OAS), which is monitoring the poll along with the European Union.

'Climate of terror' -

Campaigning was marred by partisan violence.

In a report last Wednesday, the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) described a "climate of terror."

It recorded nine armed clashes, five murders, two attempted murders, seven people wounded by guns, two stabbings, 17 injured from stones "and 10 cases of beatings."

More than 7,000 police have been deployed across the country on polling day, supported by 2,500 UN police and 2,370 peacekeepers from the UN stabilization mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH.

Sunday is only the first of three polling days before the end of the year.

Between now and then, Haiti will elect nearly all of its political personnel: deputies, senators, mayors, local officials and a president.

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