Disorder, delays mar Haiti's long-awaited election

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Port-au-Prince (AFP) - Haiti carried out long-delayed legislative elections Sunday, in a stride toward restoring constitutional order though sporadic disturbances forced dozens of voting centers to close doors.

With low voter turnout reported, several Port-au-Prince stations were vandalized in the morning and 26 voting centers were closed across the country by midday.

Lengthy delays hit polling in many places as the impoverished Caribbean nation launched its first legislative elections since President Michel Martelly came to power in May 2011.

The vote, which took place against a backdrop of fear of violence, also came months after lawmakers left their posts.

Electoral authorities said about 290,000 voters could not cast ballots; it was not immediately clear if make-up balloting would be scheduled.

Yet the provisional electoral council said it was "broadly speaking, satisfied" with the day's proceedings despite some violent incidents.

And an Organization of American States observer said the council had been speaking with authority. "That is the best thing one could hope for" the OAS monitor Jose Enrique Castillo Barrantes said.

Haiti -- the Americas' poorest country -- suffers from chronic instability and is struggling to recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people and crippled the nation's infrastructure.

"Although there have been incidents in some polling centers, these problems have generally been corrected," Elena Valenciano, head of the European Union's observation mission told AFP earlier.

- Vandals throw bottles -

At one polling center in downtown Port-au-Prince, where many voters were forced to wait more than an hour before they could even enter, unidentified assailants ransacked the venue.

"They came, yelled that the elections had been manipulated by the government," said Dieunel, a station worker who only gave one name, adding that the vandals threw bottles and stones.

There were also reports that three polling stations had been torched in the central Savanette department, according to the head of the Fusion party, Edmonde Supplice Beauzile.

Frantz Lerebours, spokesman for Haiti's national police, said 26 voting centers had to close their doors across the mountainous country of over 10 million due to disturbances.

Polls opened at 6:00 am (1000 GMT), and most closed at 4:00 pm. Results were not expected immediately.

Voters beyond the capital were also forced to endure lengthy delays before stations opened, as personnel were late posting candidate lists and setting up ballot boxes.

- 'Stealing the election' -

Postponed by a crisis between Haiti's executive power and opposition, the elections will determine all members of the Chamber of Deputies and two-thirds of its Senate.

Parliament was dissolved on January 13, 2015 after lawmakers' terms were not extended, and legislative chambers have remained empty for months.

More than 1,800 candidates from a dizzying 128 registered parties are vying for 139 posts in the two houses.

Some lower house seats, particularly in Port-au-Prince, have as many as 30 candidates in the fray.

After voters, poll officials and international observers were crammed into polling stations, little room was left for candidates' representatives, who were promised a space in hopes of stemming ballot fraud.

The electoral board has asked the numerous representatives to draw lots so that only five are simultaneously present, creating a source of friction.

"They do not let us come in," one woman yelled in Port-au-Prince, accusing polling authorities of choosing other parties' representatives to allow in.

"It's not acceptable, they want to steal the election."

Meanwhile, young people who gathered outside Martelly's voting station shouted insults and slogans at the president as he arrived and departed in his motorcade.

- 'Climate of terror' -

Ahead of the election, campaigning was marred by partisan violence.

In a report last Wednesday, the National Human Rights Defense Network (RNDDH) described a "climate of terror."

It recorded nine armed clashes, five murders, two attempted murders, seven people wounded by guns, two stabbings, 17 injured from stones "and 10 cases of beatings."

On Saturday, police arrested some 20 people in central Haiti for possession of illegal arms.

More than 7,000 police were deployed across the country on polling day, supported by 2,500 UN police and 2,370 peacekeepers from the UN stabilization mission in Haiti, MINUSTAH.

Turnout was not expected to top 15 percent, according to pre-election surveys. In the second round of the 2011 presidential elections, it was less than 25 percent.

A total of 5.8 million people were registered to vote.

Sunday, which is only the first of three polling days before the end of the year, left Martelly and other top politicians pleading for calm.

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