It is unfortunately not unusual for an election to be held in adverse circumstances; recent votes in Iraq and Afghanistan come to mind.
But rarely has an election taken place in conditions as unpropitious as those prevailing in Haiti. To the massive earthquake that devastated much of the country 11 months ago have been added human need far beyond the capacity of international aid organisations, neglect, once the television cameras had left, and now a cholera epidemic that has overwhelmed already inadequate medical services.
As if all this was not enough, the controversy surrounding the origins of the cholera – widely associated, rightly or wrongly, with the arrival of Nepalese peacekeepers – has undermined efforts to enforce law and order and turned popular ire on to the UN. With more than 1.5 million people still homeless, it is hard imagine a worse combination.
The decision, against much advice to the contrary, that this election should go ahead nonetheless can be seen as the one bright spot in this bleak landscape. If the election proceeds smoothly, it could just mark a much-needed new beginning. Many Haitians, weary of corrupt, poor or non-existent leadership, doubt that a new president and a new legislature alone will improve anything. And it is easy to be cynical on their behalf. But leadership can make a difference and there has been no shortage of those putting themselves forward; 19 candidates are contesting the presidency, which makes a January run-off likely.
The UN is responsible for running Sunday's elections, and they must be seen as credible, even if they fall short of being judged 100 per cent free and fair. Without a presentable mandate, no government will be able at once to build morale at home and attract vital funds from abroad. The challenge is huge, but it would be defeatist to dismiss it as impossible.