Nov 20, 2016 12:01 AM

After lengthy drift, Haiti votes for new leader

The Associated Press

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Voters will have their say Sunday in a repeatedly derailed presidential election that leaders hope will get Haiti's shaky democracy on a sturdier track.

The Caribbean nation's roughly 6 million registered voters don't lack for choice: 27 presidential candidates are on the ballot. The top two finishers will meet in a Jan. 29 runoff unless one candidate in the crowded field somehow manages to win a majority of the votes.

No results are scheduled to be released for eight days, but electoral council director Uder Antoine has said it might take longer.

The balloting will also complete Parliament as voters pick a third of the Senate and the 25 remaining members of the Chamber of Deputies.

Results of last year's presidential election were disputed and then annulled after a special commission reported finding what appeared to be significant fraud and professional misconduct.

Most Haitians typically stay away from the polls, in part because they are repelled by the chronic ineffectiveness and broken promises of their elected officials. But there are Haitians who say they are determined to vote, hopeful new leaders might be able to relieve Haiti's chronic poverty and political turbulence.

"Nothing will stop me from voting. We all have to step up and help solve Haiti's problems," said Mickenson Berger, who has been cutting hair on a Port-au-Prince street corner since his barber shop was destroyed in the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Haiti has had a caretaker government for nearly a year, and the new president will face a slew of immediate and long-term challenges. 

With the depreciation of the currency, the gourde, the cost of living has risen sharply. Haiti is deeply in debt and public coffers are largely depleted. The southwest is in shambles from last month's Hurricane Matthew and parts of the north have been battered by recent floods.

Haiti is the poorest nation in the hemisphere and one of the most unequal in the world.

"Public institutions remain weak, and life-crushing poverty remains the daily reality of most of its citizens. Environmental degradation has left the population and the country's productive infrastructure highly vulnerable to shocks," said Robert Maguire, a Haiti expert who is an international affairs professor at George Washington University.

A revamped Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP, has gotten high marks for organizing Sunday's vote with some $25 million from the government. It replaced a council that was marred by internal discord and widespread allegations of fraud.

"So far, this CEP has done a good job. Their credibility is very high," said Rosny Desroches of the Haitian group Citizen Observatory for Institutionalizing Democracy, which will have 1,500 observers monitoring the national vote.

Delegations from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community are here to watch the election. The European Union withdrew its monitors in frustration earlier this year after officials annulled results from the 2015 vote.

As always with Haitian elections, security is a big concern. The Haitian National Police, which has been strengthened with international assistance, is playing a far greater role in maintaining security than it did in previous electoral cycles.

A total of 2,026 U.N. police officers and 1,468 peacekeeper troops will assist nearly 9,500 members of Haiti's police force maintain security. There will also be some 5,400 security agents conscripted by the Provisional Electoral Council to help keep order at voting centers.

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David McFadden on Twitter: www.twitter.com/dmcfadd

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