Poll delays leave Haitians sweating in landmark vote

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It was 4am and still dark when Dieudoune Orelus left her home in the Delmas 33 district of Haiti's capital - quietly determined to play her part in deciding her country's future.

More than four hours later she was sitting inside the sweltering makeshift polling centre, tired and frustrated and still nowhere near casting her vote. She insisted, however, that she would remain as long as it took - even if that meant waiting until nightfall. "I came here to vote... so that the country can change," she said. "I will stay all day long. I have hope."

Yesterday this impoverished Caribbean nation went to the polls to elect its president and parliamentary representatives in the first election for six years, a process that an overwhelming majority of the population believe is vital if Haiti is to be turned around.

The process was slow and confused and sometimes chaotic; a 76-year-old man died after he was crushed by a crowd. But the violence that some had anticipated appeared to have been avoided, and while voters were often angry and accusatory, they were mostly peaceful.

"It's has been a bit bumpy. Some places opened very late and people were angry," said David Wimhurst, a spokesman for the UN mission in Haiti (Minustah). "But the [election organisers] say they have been dispatching people to help out. So it's been a bit bumpy but it is going forward." The vote was better organised in some areas than others.

In the city centre and in districts such as Bel Air, the voting lines seemed well ordered and calm. Outside Cité Soleil, the slum where up to 300,000 people live in poor and filthy conditions, the situation was much more chaotic.

"Tell the international community that they are not letting us vote," demanded Marc Jean-Baptiste, one of a group of angry young men standing in the centre of Cité Soleil who said they had been turned away from a voting centre. "They don't want us to advance. This the same group that sent Aristide away. Now they don't want us to vote."

In the poorest parts of Haiti, talk of Jean-Betrand Aristide, the twice elected president who was driven out in a US-backed coup two years ago, is never far away. But with the former priest in exile in South Africa, most of the poor have switched their allegiance to René Préval, a former ally of Mr Aristide and a former president. Polls suggest he will win about 40 per cent of the vote.

In reality, the two men represent very different things. As he grew in influence during the Eighties, Mr Aristide preached a mixture of nationalism and liberation theology from the pulpit of this city's St Jean Bosco church. Mr Préval combines a desire to invest in programmes to help the poor with an apparent willingness to adopt World Bank and IMF reforms.

This has not stopped him being adopted by most of Haiti's poor as they have decided he represents their only hope. Across the city yesterday crowds of people burst into "manifestations" - tearing off tree branches and jogging through the streets as they chanted his name and showed off their voter ID cards.

Mrs Orelus, who had left her five children at home, came out to vote with her husband, Woodelson Jean. Like countless others, after Mr Aristide was ousted Mrs Orelus's husband lost his job. Formal unemployment in Haiti stands at about 80 per cent, and international aid groups estimate that every person who has a job has to support an average of 10 people.

Meanwhile, human rights groups have detailed how the interim government has carried out widespread repression of supporters of the former president, and there are hundreds of political prisoners in the nation's jails.

Life was hard, said Mrs Orelus, and her job selling items in the street was now her family's only source of income. And she had no doubt who she would be voting for. "Préval," she declared. "I'm poor and René Préval is for the poor."