Haitians were due to take the final step in their return to democracy yesterday when they were to hold a legislative runoff that would give the Caribbean nation its first popularly elected government since former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted two years ago.
The race for 127 seats in parliament -- 97 deputies and 30 senators -- features several hundred candidates from more than a dozen parties, ranging from members of Aristide's center-left Lavalas party to former rebels who helped oust him and several center-right, pro-business aspirants.
President-elect Rene Preval's Lespwa party is likely to capture the largest number of seats, but will probably fall short of a majority and will have to forge a coalition government, observers say.
Preval, a former president who shares Aristide's wide support among Haiti's poor masses, has urged citizens to vote amid fears of a low turnout, but the 63-year-old has done little campaigning for candidates of Lespwa which means "hope" in Creole.
Observers say a large turnout would boost Preval's legislative agenda to rebuild Haiti, which has been battered by gang violence, the closure of many textile factories and high unemployment since the February 2004 uprising that forced out Aristide.
Preval is due to take power next month and has pledged to restore security and create new jobs.
"The people need to vote massively so we can help the country move forward," said Max Mathurin, president of Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council.
"We need a high level of participation so this election will be considered legitimate," he said.
Under Haiti's constitution, the party or coalition with the most parliamentary seats gets to choose the prime minister, who acts as head of government and appoints Cabinet members and most administrative posts.
Parliament must also ratify all foreign loans, making it a key link in Haiti's dealings with the international community.
"If you expect Haiti to have any kind of democracy in the future, congress has to play a major role," said Dan Erikson, an expert on Haiti with the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue.
Haiti hasn't had a functioning parliament since 2003, and according to Erikson a huge amount of work will be needed to get it up and running after it's installed.