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Haitians vote for new president

Haitians scarred by decades of poverty, political corruption and natural disasters have cast their ballots for a new president.

Voters chose between Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a popular musician who has never held public office, and Mirlande Manigat, a former first lady and senator and long-time fixture on the political scene.

Voters formed what for the most part were orderly lines throughout the country, some shrugging off delays of three hours. Preliminary results are expected on March 31.

The vote was much calmer than the first round of polling in November, which was marred by disorganisation, voter intimidation and allegations of widespread fraud. Disputed preliminary results had shown government-backed candidate Jude Celestin edging out Martelly for a spot in the run-off, but under international pressure, Haiti's provisional electoral council reviewed the count and eliminated Celestin from the race.

Whoever wins will face enormous challenges in a country emerging from last year's earthquake, which the government estimates killed more than 300,000 people. A multibillion-dollar reconstruction effort has stalled, and 800,000 people still live in the camps that emerged around Port-au-Prince after the quake.

Compounding the misery is a cholera outbreak that has killed more than 4,700 people and is expected to surge again with the rainy season.

Martelly seems to have captured many young jobless voters. Hundreds cheered him wildly like the pop star he is as he danced on the roof of a truck after casting his ballot across the street from a tent encampment of people who lost homes in the earthquake. Meanwhile, Manigat, who touts her academic credentials and tells voters to call her mother, appeals to the country's educated middle class, a sliver of the population in a largely poor nation of 10 million.

Two recently returned ghosts from Haiti's past - Jean-Bertrand Aristide and Jean-Claude Duvalier - formed part of the backdrop to the election, but there was no evidence that either had any effect on it.

Former president Aristide returned to Haiti on Friday after seven years of exile in South Africa. The US and others in the international community felt the popular but divisive figure could destabilise the election, but although he complained upon his arrival that his party had been excluded, he stayed out of sight yesterday.

Duvalier, the infamous dictator known as "Baby Doc" who was forced from the country in 1986, made a surprise return in January. He remains in Haiti but has laid low as a judge investigates whether criminal charges should be filed against him.

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