GONAIVES, Haiti – Mules laden with sacks of ballots were led into Haiti’s countryside Monday to reach remote villages on the eve of elections aimed at putting Haiti’s experiment with democracy back on track.
Hours before polls open today, thousands of U.N. peacekeepers fanned out to guard against attacks by heavily armed gangs, some of them loyal to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the president ousted in a rebellion two years ago.
Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States, told the Associated Press on Monday he expected turnout to be high.
In his northern hometown of Marmalade, presidential front-runner Rene Preval, said he was satisfied with his campaign. “I’m tired but I am happy,” Preval said Sunday night. “It is an important election for the Haitian people.”
Authorities on Monday urged Haitians to turn out in large numbers, and they rejected the possibility that fraud could taint results.
“Haiti’s future depends on this vote,” Jacques Bernard, director general of the electoral council, told reporters in Port-au-Prince. “Good elections are the only solution to saving our nation.”
He defended a decision not to put voting stations in the sprawling seaside slum of Cite Soleil, a base for armed gangs blamed for a wave of kidnappings in the capital.
Bernard said Cite Soleil, an area even heavily armed U.N. peacekeepers have not fully penetrated, is too dangerous for election workers.
“It’s a moral question. I couldn’t ask an election worker to go into an area that I myself wouldn’t go,” he said.
There are 33 candidates in the presidential election, including two former presidents, a former rebel in the insurgency that forced Aristide from office, and a former army officer accused in the death of a Haitian journalist. If no candidate wins a majority, a March 19 runoff would be held between the top two candidates.
Hundreds are running for 129 parliamentary seats.
In a message to the Haitian people, Secretary-General Kofi Annan warned “those who may feel tempted to disrupt the democratic process” that the U.N. peacekeeping mission, which has 9,300 troops and police, “will do all it can to support the Haitian authorities in ensuring that the vote is held in freedom and safety.”