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Last Updated: Friday, 3 February 2006, 18:58 GMT
Q&A: Haiti votes
A UN peacekeeper patrols the slums of Desaline in Port-au-Prince in June
The UN troops' efforts to pacify the capital have met with criticism
Haitians go to the polls on 7 February to vote in the long-awaited presidential and legislative elections. The vote was postponed four times because of ongoing logistical problems and security fears.

However, with less than a week to go, some electoral officials are warning that the difficulties which caused the previous delays have not been resolved.

Haiti has been governed since 2004 by interim authorities led by President Boniface Alexandre and Prime Minister Gerard Latortue.

Voters will choose from 35 presidential hopefuls. Members of the interim government are barred from running.

BBC Monitoring looks at the problems the next administration will face.

What happened to the Aristide government?

The political situation in Haiti began to deteriorate following the contested local and legislative elections of May 2000. The crisis eventually culminated in an armed uprising that forced the resignation of then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide on 29 February 2004.

Mr Aristide later left the country on board a US plane. He now lives in exile in South Africa.

His hasty departure from office plunged the country into a downward spiral of violence and social and economic crisis. The former president has repeatedly accused the United States of engineering his removal from office, a claim Washington denies.

A council of elders appointed an interim government to lead the country to elections by February 2006. UN peacekeeping troops under Brazilian command were brought in to help restore order.

Since then, the people of Haiti have endured months of political and gang violence, which has left more than 800 dead since September 2004.

How does Haiti's political system work?

The National Assembly is divided into two chambers. The Chamber of Deputies has 83 members, who are elected for four years in single-seat constituencies.

The Senate has 27 members, who are elected for six years, with one third of seats renewed every two years.

The president is elected to a five-year term. Parliament stopped functioning in January 2004 when the terms of all deputies and two-thirds of sitting senators expired. Since then the president has been ruling by decree.

Who can vote?

Haiti has a population of 8.5 million (UN, 2005). Of those eligible to vote, some 86% have now received their voter cards. However, there are concerns about a shortage of electoral staff to conduct the count.

Preparations for the vote led to protests in January following a decision not to put polling stations in Haiti's largest slum, Cite Soleil. The location of some other voting centres has yet to be agreed.

At least three international observer missions will be in Haiti to oversee the elections, working alongside monitors from the National Council for Electoral Observation.

Polling stations will be open from 0600 to 1600 local time.

What is the security situation?

Despite earlier successes against the armed gangs which flourished after Mr Aristide's departure, there has been a sharp deterioration in the security situation.

Kidnapping in particular has reached almost epidemic proportions. The FBI estimates that up to 10 people are being abducted every day.

On 18 January, Minustah spokesman Marc Jacquet announced that a Major Crime Unit was being set up by the UN Police to tackle the problem.

While most kidnappings are carried out for ransom, and the money used to purchase arms on the black market, some are thought to be politically motivated.

Meanwhile, reports say a number of civilians have died or been wounded in recent gun battles between armed gangs and the UN troops.

The lack of an effective disarmament programme has left the streets awash with firearms. A recent report by three international NGOs estimated that most of the 210,000 small arms circulating in the country are illegal.

An article in the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo reported claims by peacekeepers recently returned from a tour of duty in Haiti that the use of lethal ammunition in the densely-populated slums of the capital meant that "not a day passes" without a Haitian being killed.

A spokesman for the Mission denied the soldiers' allegations but admitted that the UN does not hold records of clashes between its troops and local armed groups.

Casualties among the blue helmets are also on the increase, as they come under almost daily fire.

Over 9,000 UN personnel have now been deployed in the country, including 7,265 troops and 1,741 police officers.

What are the main issues?

While the international community hopes the elections will lay the foundations for the "democratic reconstruction" of Haiti, security and development top the list of pressing issues for most voters.

Two centuries after Haiti became the first Caribbean state to achieve independence, more than half the population survive on less than US$1 a day.

Many lack electricity and clean drinking water as a result of the near-total collapse of the country's infrastructure and unchecked environmental degradation.

Life expectancy hovers around the 50-year mark and infant mortality rates are the worst in the region. Nearly 6% of the population is HIV-positive, the highest infection rate outside sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Amnesty International, "politically motivated arbitrary detentions, extrajudicial executions, deliberate and arbitrary killings of civilians, rape, death threats and intimidation are routine and are perpetrated with impunity".

Both the interim government and the UN have accused the international community of failing to show commitment to finance this urgently-needed reconstruction and to deliver aid to the poor in Haiti's slums and hinterland.

Since the first international donors' conference was held in July 2004, less than 10% of the $1.2bn pledged for development projects has materialised.

The Caricom grouping has remained split over recognition of the interim government.

Who is likely to win?

Among the 35 hopefuls running for president, front-runner and former President Rene Preval (1996-2001) stands out. A Gallup poll in December gave him 37% of the vote.

Mr Preval has run a slick campaign, and his Hope Platform has strong backing from Aristide supporters and the former Lavalas movement.

Once a close political ally of Mr Aristide, he had said that, if elected, he would not prevent the exiled former leader from returning to Haiti.

But Mr Preval later categorically rejected the possibility of Mr Aristide's return in an interview.

Charles Henry Baker polled 10% of the intended votes with former President Leslie Manigat in third place on 8%. The 32 other presidential candidates share the remaining 45%.

At one point barred from the race by the electoral authorities, Haitian-born US businessman Dumarsais Simeus has slipped down the opinion polls.

The wealthy Texan grabbed the headlines earlier in the campaign as debate raged over whether or not his US citizenship barred him from standing.

On 8 December, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that Simeus could run, not least because it was too late to reprint ballot papers. The interim government promptly fired all five judges involved.

Other notable candidates include: Former Prime Minister Jean-Marie Cherestal; Evans Paul, an opposition leader under Mr Aristide; and Guy Philippe, former police chief turned rebel leader, who in early 2004 headed the armed uprising which ended with Mr Aristide's departure.

BBC Monitoring selects and translates news from radio, television, press, news agencies and the Internet from 150 countries in more than 70 languages. It is based in Caversham, UK, and has several bureaus abroad.




BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See the preparations for the Haiti elections



SEE ALSO:
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