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Haiti Voters Face Mounting Fraud Concerns

PORT-AU-PRINCE – Haitians faced growing concerns of voter fraud Friday ahead of presidential elections as the desperately poor nation gripped by cholera struggles to rebuild after a devastating earthquake.

Supporters of the Haitian presidential candidate Michel Martelly take part in a rally in honor of the candidate in the Petion-ville suburb of Port-au-Prince. Fraud fears dogged the run-up Thursday to presidential elections in Haiti, a desperately poor Caribbean nation gripped by cholera and struggling to rebuild after a devastating earthquake. With the cholera toll soaring past 1,600 and the number of confirmed infections approaching 70,000, candidates cranked up campaigning ahead of Sunday's crucial vote for a successor to President Rene Preval.

The head of Haiti's electoral registry, which signs up eligible voters and verifies their IDs on election day, voiced fears Thursday that widespread fraud could "hijack" poll results.

"I think there will be fraud everywhere," Philippe Augustin told AFP.

Richard Dumel of the Provisional Electoral Council said he was aware of fraudulent papers in circulation but insisted the election organisers had "the technical means of detecting false ballots and false tally sheets."

Leading the race to the ruined palace were Jude Celestin, the ruling party candidate backed by Preval, and Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old former first lady and academic who leads most opinion polls and could become Haiti's first female president. Facts: Haiti's leading candidates

None of the 18 candidates is expected to pass the 50 percent threshold for outright victory, paving the way for a January 16 run-off. Results of the first round may not be known until December.

The winner will face an almost insurmountable task in the midst of an explosive mixture of disaster, intense poverty, fresh economic turmoil and a roiling cholera epidemic.

"The new government will have great difficulty serving the population. The administration is in tents, it was amputated of competent staff and it has lost its records and benchmarks," said Joseph Jasmin, Haiti's minister of parliamentary relations.

The lead-up to the election has been marred by deadly clashes between rival political factions and anti-UN riots in the northern city of Cap-Haitien over the growing cholera outbreak.

UN peacekeeping mission chief Edmond Mulet of Guatemala offered reassurances the situation was "calm, peaceful, serene and without violence" compared to polls in previous years.

"There were two deaths two days ago, there was friction but a lot less than the country saw in the past. There will be blunders, dirty tricks, but there will be less than in the past," Mulet said.

Haitian officials have ignored calls to delay the vote and a top UN health official said that going forward with the elections was not expected to increase the spread of cholera.

Jon Andrus, deputy director of the Pan American Health Organization, noted that cholera is transmitted almost exclusively through fecal contamination of water and food.

"The kind of movement and congregating you see with people going to vote is not the kind of movement that creates an increased risk of cholera transmission," he said.

Mulet reiterated that all cholera tests so far on Nepalese peacekeepers, who are accused of bringing the disease into the country, have proved negative. Interview: Mirlande Manigat wants UN peacekeepers out

The Nepalese were placed under special protection after the protests last week, which followed accusations that cholera leaked into the central Artibonite River from infected feces in their camp.

Although the UN Security Council renewed the MINUSTAH peacekeeping mission's mandate for another year in October, Mulet said it could be reassessed in April and May if the elections pass without incident and power is transferred democratically.

MINUSTAH could then return to plans "for the reduction and eventual departure of the mission," he added.

Haiti's next president faces the daunting task of rebuilding a traumatised nation of 10 million still struggling to recover from the earthquake more than 10 months ago that flattened Port-au-Prince and claimed 250,000 lives.

Some 1.3 million people displaced by the quake still live in tent cities in the capital -- hundreds of thousands more inhabit sprawling, sometimes violent slums -- all now prey to the spiraling cholera epidemic.

More than four million Haitians are eligible to vote in the elections that will also see 11 of the country's 30 senators and all 99 parliamentary deputies chosen.

Some 3,200 UN police will join almost 9,000 Haitian security forces to police the vote.

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