PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - Haitians voted Sunday for the first time in four years in a test of stability for an impoverished country continually rocked by political turmoil.
Men armed with rocks and bottles attacked polling stations in the capital of Port-au-Prince and two dozen voting centres around the country were forced to close due to violence, according to officials.
Voting was extended two hours at some polling stations that opened late or were forced to suspend voting.
The Caribbean nation of about 10 million people has struggled to build a stable democracy ever since the overthrow of the dictatorship of the Duvalier family, which led Haiti from 1957 to 1986, and ensuing military coups and election fraud.
The country was also devastated by an earthquake in 2010 that flattened large parts of the capital, including the presidential palace, killings tens of thousands of people.
Haiti’s parliament dissolved in January after scheduled legislative elections in 2011 and 2014 were cancelled. Since January, the 119-member Chamber of Deputies has sat empty, and the Senate, with only 10 of its 30 members, has failed to field a quorum.
“Credible, inclusive, translucent and fair elections are key to long-term stability in Haiti,” Sandra Honoré, the special representative of the U.N. secretary general in Haiti, told Reuters on the eve of the vote.
President Michel Martelly, who cannot run for re-election, has dozens of candidates running throughout the country under the so-called Haitian Tet Kale (Bald Headed) Party (PHTK), named after his famously smooth scalp. The Vérité (Truth) Party of former president René Préval and the Lavalas Family party, linked to twice-deposed former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, are also running candidates.
Due to a mix of poverty, insecurity and political corruption turnout was forecast to be low with results not expected for six to 10 days. Runoffs are set for Oct. 25, the same day as the first round of presidential voting.
Following a violent campaign, the election was a test for the Haitian National Police, which has taken full control of security during election season from a downsized U.N. peacekeeping force.
The National Network for the Protection of Human Rights reported five election-related assassinations in the last month and 26 people wounded.
Frantz Lerebours, a spokesman for Haiti’s national police, said that 26 of the 1,508 voting centres suspended operations due to disturbances.
Police intervened in some voting centres to control overly aggressive political party officials monitoring the vote, according top election observers.
After voting in Petionville, Martelly downplayed the election day problems. “We have some little gaps, and we hope to fix those gaps for the presidential election,” he said. “We don’t know who the troublemakers are. No matter who they are, it’s going to an issue for all the candidates,” he added.
At one precinct at a school in the capital near the gang-infested Belair neighbourhood, voting was suspended on Sunday after it came under attack, said Guerline Benjamin, an election supervisor at Ecole Nationale Isidore Boisrond.
“They came in with force and threw rocks and bottles. They ripped up the (voting) materials,” Benjamin said. The mob overwhelmed six Haitian policemen guarding the school, she said.
It was unclear who was trying to disrupt the voting, though people in the crowd blamed Martelly supporters.
Elsewhere, some polling stations opened late but voting eventually got under way, with voters expressing scepticism that the results would bring much change.
“We know a real change won’t come from the sky,” said Joel Joseph, 27, after he exited his polling station.
Editing by David Adams and Eric Walsh