By Pascal Fletcher
CANAAN, Haiti | Fri Nov 26, 2010 4:33pm EST
CANAAN, Haiti (Reuters) – Canaan, a 10-month-old tent and tarpaulin settlement of thousands of earthquake survivors carpeting bare hillsides north of Haiti’s capital, has a prefabricated police station, a tin-roof meeting center, tent schools and churches, and even a barber shop.
But, two days before crucial presidential and legislative elections in the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation, no one in this sprawling new village founded by Haitians made homeless by the January 12 quake seems to have any idea where they will vote.
If voting stations are planned in Canaan, no one, not even the local police, knows where they will be.
“If there is no voting station, people won’t vote. We need one here,” said Vil Launaise, one of the organizers of the Canaan 2 sector, where nearly 6,000 residents are housed in flimsy blue and gray shelters stretched over stick frames.
Another 6,000 live in similar settlements spread over dusty hills about five miles north of Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s electoral authorities say 11,000 polling stations are ready to open on Sunday across the country — each to serve around 450 voters out of the 4.7 million registered.
As the country heads for the polls in the grips of a cholera epidemic that is killing dozens daily, and amid sporadic political violence, many Haitians are confused about where they can vote, let alone who they will vote for.
“I don’t really know about any of the candidates, but if I can find out, I’ll vote,” said Vanessa Deslica, 39, who lives in Canaan 2 with her two children. “But I don’t know where, nobody’s told me.”
Her complaint is echoed by many of the 1.3 million homeless living in crowded camps in and around Port-au-Prince.
Getting the word out about the elections to a population traumatized by successive calamities this year has been one of the challenges facing Haiti’s electoral authorities, who have also faced questions about credibility and transparency.
Officials have asked voters to look for their polling stations on the Internet or call by telephone to find out — but many destitute Haitians have access to neither.
Few of the 18 presidential candidates have stopped off in Canaan. In contrast to the electoral propaganda festooning the rubble-strewn streets of the capital, the only visible posters in Canaan warn of cholera and ask for help in finding dozens of missing children.
LIKELY RUN-OFF IN JANUARY
There are also serious doubts about how many of the 4.7 million registered voters actually have their national identity cards needed to be able to vote, following the chaos of the earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people.
Two days before the polls open, anxious voters were lining up outside the identity card office in Port-au-Prince.
Haiti’s government, the U.N. peacekeeping mission and international election observers are anxious the polls should go ahead despite the considerable organizational challenges.
They say the risks of not holding elections as scheduled in a volatile nation with a history of electoral turmoil and violence outweigh the threats of existing difficulties.
“All in all we believe that we should have a fairly smooth election day,” said Colin Granderson, who heads a 118-strong joint Organization of American States/Caribbean Community election observation team in Haiti.
Out of a varied field of 18 presidential candidates, a trio of front-runners has emerged. They are 70-year-old former first lady Mirlande Manigat, government technocrat Jude Celestin, 48, a protege of outgoing President Rene Preval, and 49-year-old musician and entertainer “Sweet Micky” Martelly, who has drawn large, enthusiastic crowds.
But with the contest so wide open, experts predict no single candidate will gain more than 50 percent of the votes, required to win in the first round. That means the election is likely to go to a deciding run-off on January 16 between the top two contenders.
Granderson said he was still worried about last-minute problems in the recruitment and training of polling station workers, and about the possibility of political violence.
About 12,000 United Nations troops and police will be helping local police to protect the polls. The U.N. says levels of violence have been less than in the 2006 elections.
Polls will open on Sunday at 6 a.m. and close early at 4 p.m., well before night falls.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva and Allyn Gaestel; editing by Christopher Wilson)
The confusion is not all accidental.
It is a carefully cultivated environment that will allow the confusion to cover Preval’s attempt to steal the vote, as he did in 2005.
Yesterday, there was a meeting in Preval’s office, attended by Senator Lambert, Celestin and others from their clique. Lambert – coordinating Celestin’s campaign – insists on a first round win and plans to put his Mob on the street to force the issue.
Preval just got up and walked out of the room, leaving them to discuss this. Preval wants a run-off situation in which he can isolate Jean-Henry Ceant by having Manigat and Celestin in the first two slots. Then he will eliminate Manigat in the run-off and Celestin will be president.