* Haitians to choose new president, parliament, senators
* Fear of disease and violence may keep voters at home
* United Nations hopes vote can help, not hinder, recovery
By Joseph Guyler Delva
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti votes Sunday in
elections roiled by a cholera epidemic, political tensions and
voter confusion, seeking a leader to guide the impoverished
Caribbean country's recovery from a January earthquake.
The international community hopes the vote to select a new
president and parliament and a third of the Senate can lead to
a stable, legitimate government capable of administering
billions of dollars of reconstruction aid pledged by donors.
Representing this world support, blue-helmeted U.N.
peacekeepers are helping Haiti's police to secure and protect
more than 11,000 polling stations set up in schools,
prefabricated wooden huts and even in tents in crowded quake
But with political tensions flaring, and rebuilding after
the devastating January earthquake seemingly paralyzed by the
advancing deadly cholera epidemic, many fear a contentious
turbulent election may just drive Haiti deeper into turmoil.
A clutch of front-runners -- a Sorbonne-educated opposition
matriarch, a government technocrat who is a protege of outgoing
President Rene Preval, and a charismatic entertainer and
musician -- lead a varied field of 18 presidential candidates.
Although opinion polls have put 70-year-old former first
lady Mirlande Manigat ahead, the lack of a clear favorite has
increased the likelihood of the contest going to a deciding
Jan. 16 runoff between the two top vote-winners.
The biggest protagonists Sunday may turn out to be
apathy, confusion and fears of violence, which could keep many
of the 4.7 million registered voters at home in a country whose
shattered infrastructure deters easy movement.
Added to that is the raging cholera epidemic which has
killed some 2,000 people, according to U.N. officials, and
sickened tens of thousands as it stalks across the country.
But there were Haitians who said they were anxious to vote,
seeing the nationwide ballot as a way to help usher in a better
future after this year's succession of calamities adding to
Haiti's sad history of natural and man-made disasters such as
uprisings and corrupt dictatorships.
"The schools have crumbled, there is no work. We want
school and university and work ... and now cholera has
destroyed Haiti. I'm going to vote, because I'm a citizen and I
have the right," said Rodrigue Elarion, 32, who is unemployed.
'WORST YEAR IN HAITI'S HISTORY'
Calling 2010 the "worst year in Haiti's history", outgoing
President Preval, who cannot stand again after serving two
terms, called on Haitians to vote in peace and shun violence.
Manigat has been tracked in opinion polls by Jude Celestin,
48, candidate of Preval's Inite (Unity) coalition, and Michel
"Sweet Micky" Martelly, 49, a star of Haiti's Kompa dance
music, whose rallies have drawn supporters in droves.
Another candidate, lawyer Jean-Henry Ceant, 54, could make
a strong showing if he galvanizes supporters of exiled former
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
In the charged election atmosphere, Manigat has accused
Inite supporters of planning fraud, while Martelly's campaign
said their candidate escaped unhurt from a late Friday shooting
by gunmen they linked to the ruling coalition.
Sporadic violence, including ambushes of campaign caravans,
random gunfire and attacks by rioters against Nepalese U.N.
peacekeepers whom some Haitians accuse of bringing in the
cholera, has killed several people and compounded the
organizational confusion surrounding the elections.
The United Nations says there is no conclusive evidence the
Nepalese troops are the source of the disease outbreak.
Hours before polls were due to open at 6 a.m.,
many frustrated voters complained they had no idea where they
were supposed to cast their ballots. Others were still lining
up to get the national identity cards they needed to vote.
But Haiti's government, the United Nations peacekeeping
mission and international observers have put a brave face on
the daunting challenges. They all argue it is better for the
elections to go ahead as scheduled than to risk a chaotic
political vacuum by postponing them.
"Everything is ready, now what we need is voters," said
Edmond Mulet, head of the U.N. mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH).
"All our troops, police and resources have been deployed
everywhere in the country. We are ready to assist the Haitian
police and to protect the population," he added, saying
election materials had been distributed to polling stations.
Electoral observers and experts from the Organization of
American States, the Caribbean Community, the association of
Francophone states, the European Union and several European
countries are in Haiti to observe and support the elections.
(Additional reporting by Pascal Fletcher and Allyn Gaestel;
writing by Pascal Fletcher; editing by Mohammad Zargham)
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