Originally: Scant voting stations will force much of Haiti’s rural population to travel hours by foot to cast a ballot in the upcoming general election, should they choose to vote.
BELO, Haiti – Deep in these mountains where peasants live off the land and bony cows graze on barren hills, the desire for change is as sharp as the chilling air.
But whether residents here and in other rural communities in this poverty-stricken nation cast their ballots in presidential and legislative elections Tuesday may depend on how far the peasants are willing to walk.
There will be less than half the number of voting centers compared to the last elections in 2000. Electoral officials say they cut the number because they wanted to reduce the chances for fraud and make it easier to secure the voting centers.
That decision still had candidates upset Sunday, even as they officially brought the campaign to an end. Many candidates are concerned that the peasants, many of whom live miles away from any road, may not make what could be an hours-long trek to cast their ballots.
”We are concerned, even though we believe they will come out to vote,” said Hans Tippenhauer, who is working with the campaign of Charles Henri Baker, a businessman who polls show running second in the presidential race.
Tippenhauer said if there is violence come Tuesday — the first election since a violent revolt forced President Jean Bertrand Aristide to surrender power — some voters could become discouraged from taking the long walks required to vote.
Election authorities have hired 180 mules to carry the voting materials to and from some of the more remote polling places in this grindingly poor country, where even major roads are broken by potholes and washouts.
U.N. advisors and others downplay the concerns saying peasants are accustomed to walking great distances to go to church and school.
Pierre Jacques is among those who says he will have to get up early to vote. He lives not far from a farm village in the mountains high above Port-au-Prince, and says there’s no question he will walk the three hours to vote.
”I am obliged to go,” he said.
Jacques, who is torn between Baker and former president and front-runner René Préval, said he views Tuesday’s elections as an opportunity to bring about change and end the lack of security and economic stagnation since Aristide’s ouster.
”I would like for us to come out of the situation we are in,” he said.
The desire for change is high in the countryside, with voters saying they want schools, jobs and security. And, in a country where most of the people live in rural areas, their turnout could be a deciding factor.
But there remain plenty of undecided voters like 26-year-old Ferdinand Vertis. ”They all come with great talk but then they have nothing to back it up,” he said.
Meanwhile, in a dusty hamlet north of the western port town of Gonaives, Ormise Zephiren, 75, said she will walk the two miles to the schoolhouse where she’s been assigned to vote.
Zephiren is used to the trek. And nothing about her life is easy. She lives in a hut made of mud and dried leaves and sustains on corn and mangoes she grows herself. But the land is becoming ever less fruitful as deforestation strips it of topsoil.
She says that she and her neighbors don’t even know which candidates will help peasants the most. Like roughly half the population, they are illiterate.
Herald staff writer Trenton Daniel in Gonaives and Joe Mozingo in Port-au-Prince contributed to this report.