Haitians mostly ignore Senate run-off elections

Haitians fed up with chronic poverty and unresponsive leaders stayed away from Senate run-off elections Sunday, ignoring government efforts to improve on the paltry voter turnout that undercut the first round of voting in April.

Results are not expected for at least a week in contests for 11 vacant seats in the 30-member Senate. On the line is President Rene Preval’s hope 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 the capital of Port-au-Prince, though it was too soon to gauge the turnout in the rest of the country.

Another round of mostly empty ballot boxes could embarrass the government and fuel opponents’ claims that it has stumbled in developing Haiti as a democracy. The first round of voting April 19, held after more than a year and half of delays, saw only 11 percent of registered voters participate.

Electoral council president Frantz Gerard Verret took to the radio waves Sunday afternoon to plead with voters: “If you don’t come out and vote, other people will vote for you.”

But as polls closed at 4 p.m. (5 p.m. EDT, 2100 GMT) those pleas appeared to have gone unheeded. Voting centers in the capital stood nearly deserted, with transparent ballot boxes holding just the folded paper ballots of poll workers themselves.

Early reports from the countryside were similar, with Haitian radio highlighting stories such as ballots arriving late to centers where no voters waited.

Two polling places were reported shut down near the southern town of Jacmel. In at least one of those cases, supporters of a candidate ran in and tried to stuff the ballot box, Haitian police spokesman Frantz Lerebours said.

Three people were injured in the Jacmel area and at least one person was killed during a fight between rival supporters in the western town of Grand Anse. Political violence took at least two lives before election day.

Many Haitians said that more than anything, they were discouraged by years of votes cast for politicians who went on to do little to alleviate crushing poverty. Frustrations are running especially high with Preval after he refused last week to enact into law a bill passed by parliament that would raise the minimum wage from less than $2 to about $5.14 a day.

After consulting with business leaders, Preval proposed a compromise that would provide the full increase for some employees, but limit the minimum wage to $3.25 for factory workers who make clothing for export. Parliament will take up the issue next week.

Many people in the slums, who pushed Preval to victory in 2006, called his decision a betrayal.

“Preval put his head together with the elites to make the poor suffer. If he had voted for the ($5.14 a day) I could have voted today. But he didn’t, so I won’t either,” said Marck Harris, 45, who sews Dickies-brand pants while raising eight children in the Cite Soleil slum.

Still, Preval’s Lespwa movement could gain as many as eight Senate seats, and with them a potential 14-seat plurality among the chamber’s 29 voting members. Only two other parties had multiple candidates advance to the second round, one with five and the other three.

The influential Lavalas party of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide has boycotted the elections since its candidates were disqualified in April on a technicality. Many slum residents, who make up the party’s base, said they would have been more likely to vote had a Lavalas candidate participated.

“This is one of the crises of the election: that Lavalas is excluded,” said a party supporter, David Choudelor, 21.

In addition to disgruntlement with Haiti’s leaders, many potential voters were leery of going to the polls after weeks of violent protests, fueled by political tensions over the run-offs as well as next year’s planned presidential election.

Tensions also are high over the presence of 9,000 U.N. peacekeepers, who have been in Haiti since the 2004 rebellion that overthrew Aristide.

A young man was killed Thursday when mourners and U.N. peacekeepers clashed during a funeral procession for a popular priest closely linked with Aristide. The death is under investigation.

On Sunday, student protesters threw rocks at peacekeepers and police near Haiti’s state university medical campus, and security force responded with tear gas. It was the first time students protested on a Sunday since beginning a strike a month ago to demand curriculum changes, an increase in Haiti’s minimum wage and the departure of U.N. troops.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.