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Haitians mostly ignore Senate run-off elections

Election officials flew street banners and sent text messages to encourage a big turnout for Haiti's hotly anticipated Senate run-offs, but very few in the capital city were voting Sunday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Election officials flew street banners and sent text messages to encourage a big turnout for Haiti's hotly anticipated Senate run-offs, but very few in the capital city were voting Sunday.

Voting centers in Port-au-Prince were nearly deserted. At some stations, the only ballots showing in the transparent voting boxes were those cast by poll workers.

Eleven vacant seats in the 30-member Senate are on the line. With them are President Rene Preval's hopes of overpowering uncooperative legislators and pushing through internationally backed economic reforms and constitutional amendments that would give his successors more power.

Voting was extremely light in Port-au-Prince, though it was too early to gauge the turnout in the rest of the country. Results from Sunday's vote are not expected for at least a week.

Many Haitians said they are wary of voting following weeks of political clashes, some deadly, and they're fed up with what they see as an ineffective government that has done nothing about the country's dire poverty.

"I've been voting every time since 1990. When you vote, you think you're going to get a change. But we haven't seen any change," said Marck Harris, 45, a father of eight and garment worker who earns less than $2 a day.

Political tension fuels unrest
In the sprawling, oceanside slum of Cite Soleil, a former gang stronghold now home to a large U.N. peacekeeping base and a Haitian police station, supporters of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party said more people would vote if their party was participating.

Haiti's provisional electoral council barred Lavalas after demanding documents signed by Aristide, the ousted president who has been living in South African exile for five years. In turn, Lavalas called for a boycott of the polls, which it partially credited for the first round's 11 percent turnout in April. The boycott remained in effect Sunday.

"This is one of the crises of the election — that Lavalas is excluded," said party supporter David Choudelor, 21.

Radio Vision 2000 reported a polling place was shut down near Jacmel after supporters of one candidate ran in and tried stuffing the ballot box.

In Port-au-Prince, university students, who have been protesting for weeks against curriculum changes and for a higher minimum wage, burned tires and threw rocks at police before retreating onto campus. Police threw tear gas in response.

The unrest is fueled by political tension, including some early jockeying for next year's planned presidential elections, as well as wrangling between the president and parliament over the proposed minimum wage increase. Tensions also surround the presence of 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers, who have been in Haiti since the 2004 rebellion that overthrew former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Officials trying to improve turnout
Election officials were trying to improve on the paltry 11 percent turnout in the first round of voting on April 19. That round was noted for its empty ballot boxes and sleeping poll workers. Isolated intimidation and violence also forced the cancellation of voting in one of 10 administrative regions.

Public transportation, suspended in the first round, was running Sunday. Alcohol sales have been banned. And U.N. peacekeepers have fanned out across mountains and crumbling highways to help Haitian police guard schools and other polling centers.

On Wednesday, student protesters burned a U.N. vehicle. On Thursday, a young man was killed as mourners and U.N. peacekeepers confronted each other during a funeral procession for a popular priest closely linked with Aristide. The death is under investigation.

The first round of voting strongly favored Preval's Lespwa movement. Those results were heavily criticized by influential opposition lawmakers, who allege fraud and have threatened to disregard winning candidates.