Haiti holds first election since 'day of catastrophe'

The last round of rallies took place amid flickering lights in the evening, frenzied chanting of the names of candidates, impromptu bands belting out political songs to a Caribbean beat, gangs of young toughs on motorcycles waiting for the instruction to disrupt gatherings of rivals.

The election in Haiti will be held today, the first since the "day of catastrophe" last January which claimed more than 230,000 lives, amid a sense of bitter resentment about the present and and foreboding for the future. No one expects the results, which will be disputed, to offer a clear path to stability for a country with shattered infrastructure, suffering a cholera epidemic and being preyed by lawlessness.

Even before the votes are cast there are accusations of the election being stolen. Michel Martelly, former cross-dressing jazz artiste and would-be president, warned at his meeting that there will be widespread fraud. "They do not want your voices to be heard, they do not want to see change, they do not want to see a new path being taken, they do not want me to win." His followers, a large proportion of them young and unemployed roared out that they would not allow such injustice to take place.

There are plenty of opportunities to stuff the ballot boxes. There is little documentation of those killed and missing or precise locations of the 1.3 million homeless living in the vast and tented villages. In the grip of desperate poverty in the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, people are prepared to sell their votes and those of dead relations for a few dollars.

Remy Fournier, from Cite Soleil, a sprawling ghetto of extreme squalidness, claimed that men representing the campaign of Charles Henry Baker, a millionaire industrialist, had offered him $1,000 for the delivery of 20 votes. "When I refused they got threatening, but I told them to get lost, I do not fear them, just because a man is rich does not mean he can buy everything" he said.

Mr Fournier's companions, in their 20s like him, were for marching down to Cite Soleil for a confrontation. But, complaining about lack of transport for the expedition, they went back to their dancing.

At Cite Soleil supporters of Mr Baker denied that they were buying votes. They were the victims rather than perpetrators of intimidation, they maintained. A few days ago one of their meetings were broken up by men in yellow and green t-shirts, the colours of Jude Celestin, the successor chosen by Rene Preval, the outgoing president who cannot, under the constitution, run for a third term.

The men had arrives on motorcycles and fired pistols in the air, dispersing a panicked crowd. "There were women, children there. Everyone was very scared, they are trying to frighten people into not voting."

Clashes between supporters have led to deaths.In the coastal town of Jeremie a gun attack on a convoy carrying Mr Celestin led to three people being killed. Senator Joseph Lambert, the campaign manager, claimed it was an attempt to assassinate Mr Celestin. A previous attack in the same area in a meeting for Mr Baker had resulted in two deaths.

Meanwhile the remorseless rise in deaths continued. The latest figures released by the United Nations showed a death toll of 1523 yesterday with another 29,993 receiving treatment. The British government announced that it will be sending 1,000 medical staff to help combat the disease, officials stressed that although this was very welcome many more medical staff were needed.

At Champ de Mars, the central plaza which is now a refugee camp, two health ministry workers picked up the body of a young girl, probably in her early teens, on Friday, sanitising with a chlorine solution before putting her a truck for a growing burial ground outside the capital.

Jean-Pierre Lescome crossed himself. "It is very sad, very sad, we have been doing this for days picking up the bodies. Often these people have no families left so we cannot inform anyone," he said.

Back in the election campaign, at the suburb of Carrefour on Friday evening Mr Celestin and Marlinde Manigat, a 70-year-old Sorbonne trained academic, and the wife of former president Leslie Manigat, who was deposed in a 1988 military coup, were asking there supporters for a final push today.

Mr Celestin suffers from being seen as the surrogate for President Preval, who cannot run for a third term under the constitution, plummeted after what was seen as his inaction following the earthquake. Ms Manigat, known as 'Mommy' to her followers, is so frail that she has to be helped up the stairs to the rally platform.

But there are no clear cut lead in the somewhat haphazard polls to indicate a winner. Mr Mantelly is the second musician to stand after the US based Wyclef Jean campaigned for a while before being banned by the Electoral Council, effectively controlled by President Preval for not being a Haitian resident for the last five years. .

Mr Jeans's slogan was " Jen Kore Jen" – " Youth helping Youth". Now Mr Mantelly wants to help himself to some of these disaffected votes. On Friday evening, sitting in a hotel bar, nursing a brandy Mr Jean told The Independent on Sunday of his anger at being denied the chance to run and acknowledged that his endorsement may tip the balance in the contest. The hip-hop king waits at the wing to emerge as the kingmaker in Haiti.

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