Haiti ready for poll amid rising threat of epidemic

Winner faces the daunting task of rebuilding a nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake that is now struggling to contain fears of unrest as the death toll from a cholera outbreak soars.

PORT-AU-PRINCE // Haitians are preparing to vote for new leaders who will inherit a country on its knees after January's earthquake, and a cholera epidemic threatening more than a million refugees.

Campaigning has been marred by clashes between rival political factions and by anti-UN riots over the growing cholera outbreak that have raised fears of wider unrest.

Leading the race to succeed the president, Rene Preval, before Sunday's vote are Jude Celestin, the ruling party candidate backed by Mr Preval, and Mirlande Manigat, an opposition leader and a former first lady who has a clear lead in opinion polls.

Capable of a surprise upset is Michel Martelly, 49, a singer of Haitian kompa music affectionately known as "Sweet Micky" and popular with the urban masses in the capital, Port-au-Prince.

No candidate is expected to pass the 50 per cent threshold needed for an outright victory. Two of the front-runners will probably make it through to a January 16 run-off, but nothing is sure in Haiti's uncertain political arena.

The director of Haiti's electoral registry, Philippe Augustin, said he feared there would be widespread fraud in the poll that could taint the outcome.

"I think there will be fraud everywhere," he said, warning the election could be "hijacked."

"We need massive participation and many observers and journalists" to ensure a fair election, Mr Augustin added.

Whoever wins will face the daunting task of rebuilding a traumatised nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake less than a year ago flattened Port-au-Prince and claimed 250,000 lives.

Some 1.3 million people displaced by the earthquake live in squalid tent cities that cling to the steep slopes of the capital. Hundreds of thousands more inhabit sprawling slums.

Sunday's elections come against the backdrop of a spiralling cholera epidemic that has killed 1,415 people and is claiming more than 100 new lives every two days.

On Wednesday, Valerie Amos, the UN's undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs warned that Haiti urgently needed about 1,000 more trained nurses and at least 100 more foreign doctors to control the epidemic.

Posters for Mr Celestin, the founder and executive director of the Preval government's road-building outfit, are everywhere and he has enjoyed the full use of the ruling Inite party's political machinery for his campaign.

Critics view this political novice with suspicion and accuse him of being a Preval stooge. On Wednesday, some 50 protesters burnt Inite banners in Port-au-Prince.

Well clear of him in most polls is Ms Manigat, a favourite among women voters who enjoys the backing of a coalition of anti-Preval legislators.

The 70-year-old is no stranger to the presidential palace, where she served as first lady for a few months in 1988 until her husband Leslie Manigat was ousted in a military coup.

Ms Manigat is promising a break from the corruption-tainted administrations of the past that have done little to address the plight of ordinary Haitians - more than half of whom live on less than a dollar a day.

"This elections is not important for me. It's important for the country," she said in an interview. "Haitians do not want continuity. They want change, to see a rupture from the past."

Asked about UN peacekeepers from Nepal accused of bringing cholera into the country, Ms Manigat said the jury was still out but that, regardless, the UN peacekeeping mission known as Minustah should wrap up its mission and leave.

"Minustah is a foreign military body. It's against the constitution and it brings back bad memories. The presence of a foreign military force, even a multilateral one, is not normal," she said.

Nearly 4.7 million Haitians are eligible to vote in the elections, which will also see 11 of the country's 30 senators and all 99 parliamentary deputies chosen.

The country could face further chaos and risk billions of dollars in global aid if no credible government emerges to replace Mr Preval, who is legally barred from seeking a third term.

* Agence France-Presse with additional reporting by Reuters