Kerry urges Haiti to get behind upcoming vote

Port-au-Prince (AFP) - Three weeks before Haiti holds polls that could make or break its recovery from disaster and political crisis, US Secretary of State John Kerry has urged the country to get behind the vote.

Haiti's President Michel Martelly is forbidden from seeking a second term in office. But before he steps down, he has one more very important task -- to help Haiti prepare for the October 25 vote to choose his successor.

In August, legislative elections were marred by low-level violence between rival supporters at polling centers mobbed by hundreds of candidates, but very few voters.

Organizing a peaceful polling day would be an uplifting final act for Martelly, a former pop star.

But it could prove a tall order, given the poverty-stricken Caribbean nation's history of despotism and disaster.

More than 50 candidates, most virtual unknowns, will be listed on the ballot.

The campaign has failed to catch the public imagination, setting the stage for an inconclusive vote and a possible repeat of August's chaotic scenes.

"Haiti's future depends on the unity of its people and on your ability to develop strong and stable democratic institutions," Kerry said.

"We all know that democracy requires a great deal more than elections. But elections are the essential starting point.

"Haiti needs governing institutions, and these cannot come into being without free and fair elections in which citizens take part without intimidation and without violence."

Already the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, Haiti was struck in January 2010 by a massive earthquake that largely demolished downtown Port-au-Prince and left more than 200,000 dead.

The disaster was followed by a cholera epidemic -- blamed on poor hygiene by UN peacekeeping troops -- that left the nation reeling.

Haiti was left more beholden than ever to foreign donors, but a global outpouring of aid was quickly swallowed up by often badly-managed emergency programs.

Despite the setbacks, Haitians have rebuilt their cities and most have left the ramshackle camps they fled to after the quake, and the government is seeking longer-term investment in the economy.

Martelly's term, which ends in February, has been marked by successive political crises that delayed local and legislative elections, but US officials now dare hope the country may have turned a corner.

"Things are probably as good here as they've been for a long time," a senior US official told reporters, noting that American taxpayers had contributed more than $4 billion to the international effort to help Haiti rebuild.

"These elections are important, though, because there's a lot of work that still needs to be done. And we need a partner across the table from us, in terms of a fully elected, legitimate parliament and an elected president when Martelly's term is up."

- Progress put at risk -

An independent election commission is in charge of organizing the vote, so Martelly's main task will be to ensure that the 12,000-strong police force is able to prevent a repeat of the unrest that disturbed balloting earlier this year.

Martelly himself acknowledged that the August balloting was "far from perfect."

"The government continues to do everything possible to make sure the process goes better," he added, vowing to boost police presence so it is more efficient.

The Haitian president called the democratic process "the only way possible and the only foreseeable path."

The US official stressed that Haitians were seeking "someone who they believe is going to help get this country moving faster uphill than it has."

"We have a process here that if it doesn't pan out well -- if we have elections that either are marked by violence or are somehow manipulated -- that puts all that at risk," the official added.

Kerry stressed that a successful vote was key to attract foreign investment and companies, and the "essential starting point" for democracy.

"Haiti needs to come together," he said.