Skirmishes raise spectre of violent Haiti election

The impromptu campaign rally ended not with cheers but panic as armed men on motorcycles, some wearing the yellow-and-green T-shirts of a rival presidential contender, pulled up to the small crowd and fired into the air.

Men and women immediately took off the red-white-and-blue T-shirts of their candidate and fled down the pitted side streets of the Cite Soleil slum, said Pierre Joseph Laimay, who organised the recent rally on behalf Charles Henri Baker, a factory owner who is one of 19 candidates in Sunday's presidential election.

Laimay, a wiry man with a wisp of a moustache, said he managed to gather a crowd of several dozen by handing out T-shirts along with small payments for water and bus fare - a big deal in a largely jobless city - and he hoped to make a little money himself from the campaign for his efforts. As the others fled, he says he stood his ground.

"If they were going to kill me, they were going to have to do it with my T-shirt on," the 45-year-old father of three said, glancing about nervously as he sat on a street corner in a waterfront slum notorious for gang violence.

Accounts of voter intimidation have long been common in Haiti, and this year is no different. Several candidates have reported attempts on their lives, raising fears of the sort of election-linked violence that tore the nation apart in the past.

And this is a vote that already faces huge obstacles because of a rapidly spreading cholera epidemic and the devastation of January's earthquake.

The next president will oversee billions of dollars in US and other foreign reconstruction aid to Haiti.

"This period coming up is going to be critical for the nation state to make some decisions about how this country rebuilds itself over the coming years," said US Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten.

Earlier this week, Baker's supporters clashed with those of candidate Jude Celestin, who is supported by President Rene Preval, near the southern coastal town of Jeremie and at least one person was killed as the sides traded gunfire.

Sen. Joseph Lambert, head of Celestin's campaign, said it was an attempt to kill the candidate, who was in a convoy of campaign vehicles at the time, because he is likely to win Sunday's vote without the need for a runoff, which is required if no one gets more than 50 percent.

At least one major candidate, Leslie Voltaire, said the election should be postponed because of cholera. Lambert and other Haitian officials said neither the cholera nor the violence should halt the vote - a position shared by the UN and the US government.

"Obviously, we have seen elections held in Afghanistan and Iraq ... a small incident like this won't stop ours," said Lambert, referring to the shooting near Jeremie.

Some conflict between supporters of rival candidates are inevitable as campaigning winds down this week. People are often paid small amounts, or get a little gas money or other small gifts, to attend and cheer on candidates.

And with so many people in the race, even a small percentage of votes can propel someone into a runoff or make them a spoiler, provoking fierce contests even among those who have little chance of becoming president.

Violence has been a factor in Haitian elections since President for Life Jean-Claude Duvalier was forced into exile in 1986, ending a 29-year family dynasty in the Caribbean republic that maintained itself through executions and torture.

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