Haiti holds long-awaited vote still reeling from hurricane

LES CAYES: Haiti holds a long-delayed presidential election on Sunday that its people hope will lift the economy after a devastating hurricane and more than a year of political instability.

First held in October 2015, the election was annulled over allegations of fraud, and a rescheduled vote was postponed last month when Hurricane Matthew struck, killing up to 1,000 people and leaving 1.4 million in need of humanitarian assistance.

Homes, schools and farms across southwestern Haiti all bear the scars of Matthew, which piled fresh misery onto the nation of more than 10 million on the western half of the island of Hispaniola still recovering from a major earthquake in 2010.

"(I want) for everyone to come together, for the country to be rebuilt," said Judeline Hubert, a 23-year-old nursing student from the southwestern port of Les Cayes.

Officials said the lingering effects of the hurricane and a bad weather forecast for Sunday risk depressing voter turnout in the poorest country in the western hemisphere, where democratic participation is generally low.

Weak turnout may undermine the legitimacy of the contest, which pits more than two dozen candidates in the race to succeed the former president, Michel Martelly, who left office in February. Since then, a caretaker government has run the island.

"The Haitian people need a leader they have chosen, not someone chosen for them," said Louis St-Germain, the vice-delegate, or elected representative, for Les Cayes. "They are tired of the instability, of things that are missing."

Opinion polling is far from reliable in Haiti, civil society groups say. Still, a recent survey by pollster BRIDES made local entrepreneur Jovenel Moise the favorite to take the presidency for Martelly's Bald Heads Party in the first round.

Among his most prominent competitors are the onetime boss of a government construction company, Jude Celestin, former senator Moise Jean-Charles, and Maryse Narcisse, a doctor backed by ex-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Unless one candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote or wins by at least 25 percent, a second round run-off will be held for the top two finishers, likely on Jan. 29. The victor is scheduled to take office in February.

To safeguard voting in a country with a history of electoral violence, nearly 13,000 officers from the national police and the United Nations are being mobilized for Sunday.

But how many of the hundreds of thousands of people battered by Hurricane Matthew last month will make it to polling stations is a particular worry in southern Haiti.

Only 4,000 identification cards have so far been produced to replace those lost to Matthew, said Wilson Fievre, general director of Haiti's National Identification Office.

Having the wherewithal to vote may still not be enough.

"Even if they can get voting material to all of these places, there's still an open question of whether people will actually care," said Jake Johnston, a Haiti specialist at the Washington-based think tank Center for Economic and Policy Research.