PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Sporadic violence, including the ransacking of polling stations in the capital, forced dozens of voting centers to close Sunday during Haiti’s long-delayed legislative elections.
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 kicked off 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 takes place against a backdrop of fear of violence, also comes months after lawmakers left their posts.
Haiti — the poorest country in the Americas — suffers from a history of chronic instability and is still 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.
Noting the day’s low turnout, the European Parliament said that “we must make an appeal to Haitians to exercise their right to vote, which is their voice to determine the future they want for their country once and for all.”
‘They came, yelled’
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 the stations, 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.
Police and officials from Haiti’s provisional electoral council arrived to find the schoolyard polling station littered with ballot shreds, which many residents collected as souvenirs.
Frantz Lerebours, spokesman for Haiti’s national police, said that 26 voting centers had to close their doors across the country due to disturbances.
Polls opened at 6:00 a.m. local time, and were due to close at 4:00 p.m. 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.
The spokesman for Haiti’s provisional electoral council, Richardson Dumel, told AFP he was not anticipating major repercussions from the slow start, and expected delays would be “made up over the course of the day.”
‘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 are crammed into polling stations, little room is left for candidates’ representatives, who were promised a space in hopes of stemming ballot fraud.
The provisional electoral council 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 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 have been 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 is 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 are registered to vote out of a population of around 10.3 million.
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.
Between now and then, Haiti will elect nearly all of its political representatives: deputies, senators, mayors, local officials and a president.
If all goes according to schedule, lawmakers will take office on January 11, 2016 and Martelly will hand over power to his successor on February 7, 2016.