Haitians went to the polls yesterday to elect a new president amid the ruins of an earthquake that has left 800,000 people homeless, fears of a cholera outbreak and reports of campaign violence and ballot station chaos.
Early indications suggested slow voting, as Brazilian UN troops guarded polling stations and international observers fanned out across the country in the hopes of avoiding the widespread fraud that marred the first round of the election in November.
The run-off candidates vying to succeed President René Préval are a former first lady and a popular carnival singer. They offer similar prescriptions for unlocking billions of dollars in international aid and rebuilding the Caribbean nation, but they could not differ more in their personal histories.
The pop star Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a one-time bad boy singer with a penchant for disrobing on stage and a history of unpaid debts in the US, appeared to have an edge going into the polls over the establishment candidate Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old university law professor and the wife of the former president Leslie Manigat. But the votes will not be fully tallied until later this month and a final result will only be certified in April.
The UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appealed for a calm, transparent vote and Mr Préval, casting his ballot, said he hoped Haiti's first ever run-off election would consolidate the country's democracy. "I hope the day will go well, that the results won't have any trouble, so we can have an elected president to replace me," he told reporters.
Missing voting materials marred the start of voting at some polling stations, and Mr Martelly's highest-profile supporter, the Haitian-American singer Wyclef Jean, was shot while out campaigning in the capital Port au Prince on Saturday night.
Jean said he realised that his hand had been grazed by a bullet after noticing blood on his shirt and shoes following a round of gunfire. The singer, who had got out of his car to make a telephone call, said that he had no idea who fired, or whether he was the target. He said that a doctor treated him at a hospital and that he was taking antibiotics.
"It is clear that enemies of progressive change in Haiti are behind the shooting of Wyclef – those that don't want to accept that a monumental change is inevitable for the betterment of the Haitian people," said Jimmy Rosemond, who was travelling with Jean. "This incident will not deter those of us that see the election as crucial to the country's future."
Looming over the poll was the still-popular personality of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former president who returned from exile on Friday and expressed anger that his own party had been barred from the elections. He has endorsed neither candidate and his aides insist he has no intention of returning to Haitian politics but his presence could yet prove a complication for the new leader.
International aid groups have billions of dollars of support for Haiti ready but have been reluctant to hand over control of the funds to the government of Mr Préval, in favour of waiting to deal with a new, legitimately elected president. UN observers said that voting difficulties were much reduced from the 28 November first-round poll, one of whose winners, Mr Préval's preferred successor Jude Celestin, was later removed from the run-off because of election fraud allegations.
Almost a million Haitians are still living in tent cities after the earthquake of January 2010, and aid workers fear the spring will bring a new upsurge in cholera. "I need a president to change the situation of the country," said Adeline Hyppolite, 50, a trader from Port au Prince. "We are hoping for a better life, but only God knows."
Nicknamed "Sweet Micky", Mr Martelly was known by most Haitians before his bid for power as a cross-dressing singer. Martelly pitched himself as a populist candidate and champion of the poor against the moneyed elite. Elder voters found it hard to forget his risqué, trouser-dropping stage acts.
The 70-year-old former first lady is hoping to become Haiti's first female prime minister. Ms Manigat, a university law professor with a taste for Agatha Christie thrillers, presents herself as a calming older influence in a volatile political scene, and is known as "Mom" to her followers.