PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Election workers counted ballots into the night as Haitians anxiously awaited the results of presidential elections that officials hailed as a success despite delays that caused many polls to open late.
A massive turnout all but overwhelmed electoral officials, who said early results would not be available until late Wednesday. Many Haitians voted by candlelight Tuesday night after spending hours in lines stretching up to a mile at some polling stations.
Many stations opened late, lacking the necessary workers, security and ballots to handle the crush of voters who turned out by foot, car and brightly colored buses.
Outside the gang-controlled Cite Soleil slum, frustrated voters pounded on empty ballot boxes and chanted, "It's time for Cite Soleil to vote!" In one rural town, a Haitian policeman shot and killed a man in line at a polling station; a mob then killed the officer, a U.N. spokesman said.
But officials called the election a step toward democracy in the destitute Caribbean country, saying the heavy turnout showed Haitians felt safe despite warnings that chronic violence would keep voters away. At least four deaths were reported, but authorities said the balloting was largely free of violence.
Jose Miguel Insulza, head of the Organization of American States, said "a large majority of the Haitian population voted," although no specific numbers were available.
"We will have a democratic government ... that this country has fought so long and hard to have," Insulza told reporters.
Acting U.S. Ambassador Timothy Carney applauded Haitians for stepping up to determine their future.
"Today was a triumph for the Haitian people," he said. "It was a ragged start. The Haitian people turned out in force, clearly believing security was in place. They made it work. They waited in line patiently."
The elections, held under the watch of a 9,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force, were deemed vital to averting a political and economic meltdown in the Western Hemisphere's poorest nation. Rene Preval, a 63-year-old agronomist who led Haiti from 1996-2001, was the front-runner among 33 presidential candidates.
If no candidate wins a majority, the top two vote-getters will face off in a March 19 runoff. Full results were expected later in the week.
By nightfall Tuesday, hundreds of people were still lined up at a polling station near Cite Soleil, waiting for a chance to cast their ballots.
Among them was Rene Valmay, a 25-year-old voting in his first election. He arrived to vote at 6 a.m. but left when his polling station had failed to open more than three hours after the election's official start.
"It was crazy but I had to come back and vote," Valmay said as fellow voters scribbled on ballots under the flicker of candles. "Hopefully, tomorrow I'll wake up and there will be a change in Haiti."
Voters clutching new electoral ID cards jostled and shouted for ballots. Some fainted and were carried away.
"People were yelling and screaming to get inside the voting booths," said Mona Joseph, 21, one of the last people to vote. She had to go to several different polling centers in the capital of Port-au-Prince before finding her name on the voter registry.
Election officials extended voting by several hours to ensure those who wanted to vote could. The election has been postponed four times since October.
The stakes were huge — more than simply who will lead the country and who will occupy seats in parliament. Haiti, which has seen only one president complete his term in office, could implode if the elections go wrong, experts say.
In the aftermath of a February 2004 rebellion that toppled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, gangs have gone on a kidnapping spree and the country's few factories are closing because of security problems and a lack of foreign investment.
U.S. officials have warned that a collapse could trigger another wave of Haitians migrating aboard boats to the United States. That occurred in 1994, prompting Washington to send troops to Haiti to restore Aristide to power, three years after he fell to a military coup.
In the northern town of Gros Morne, a Haitian policeman shot and killed a man in line at a polling station, Wimhurst said. A mob then killed the police officer, he said. There were two other reported deaths in polling stations in the capital — two elderly men who collapsed while waiting in line.
Preval — who has the backing of many supporters of Aristide — said if he wins, Haitians must recognize their country is in dire straits and should not set their expectations too high.
"We will not be able to do everything right away," he said. "But we are determined to do our best and raise the standard of living for the people of Haiti."
Other top contenders were Charles Henri Baker, 50, whose family runs factories that assemble clothing for export, and Leslie Manigat, 75, who was president for five months in 1988 until the army ousted him.