PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — A few thousand protesters allied with Haiti's opposition marched through the capital on Sunday demanding the chance to vote in legislative and local elections that are three years late, among other grievances.
Placard-waving demonstrators started their rally in the downtown slum of Bel Air, burning piles of rum-soaked wood and holding up their voting cards to show they were ready to cast ballots. Some carried placards showing the bespectacled image of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is confined to his home in a Port-au-Prince suburb amid a war of wills with a Haitian judge investigating corruption allegations against him.
Earlier this year, President Michel Martelly called for legislative and municipal elections overdue since late 2011 to take place on Sunday. But the vote has been postponed due to an ongoing stalemate over an electoral law between the government and six opposition senators.
"We came out today to vote but there is no place to vote," said Wilson Paulo, an unemployed 65-year-old shantytown resident as he stood next to a small fire burning in the middle of a trash-strewn road. Another election protest took place in the northern city of Cap-Haitien.
Martelly's draft electoral law has been languishing in the Senate for over 200 days even though the terms of 10 senators expire in mid-January and the country has faced mounting pressure from the U.N. and U.S. to organize the vote before Parliament is dissolved. Voters need to elect one-third of Haiti's 30-member Senate and fill numerous other posts across the nation of roughly 10 million people.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe said the electoral stalemate is "embarrassing" for the country. He blamed the opposition senators, noting that in order to hold an election the Parliament must first authorize an electoral law.
"They have never been able to convene a session to put the vote forward. This is unfair to the people, this spinning in place and not wanting to provide the law for the election by a group of six extremist senators," Lamothe said Saturday during a Cabinet retreat in a south coast town.
But the six opposition senators deny they've been holding up the elections and are instead defending the Haitian Constitution. They have been complaining of exclusion and unfair advantages by the government, along with other opposition figures.
On Sunday, Sen. Moise Jean-Charles, one of the six, rode on horseback through the streets as the march progressed through Port-au-Prince.
"We are going to vote against Martelly on the streets today!" the senator shouted from his horse.
In Petionville, heavily-armed riot police guarded hotels, shops and the country's elections office. The march in Port-au-Prince was mostly peaceful, but police dispersed crowds with tear gas in mid-afternoon when they were back downtown. At least two protest organizers were arrested.
Due to the intransigence of his political opponents, the prime minister said Martelly will be forced to call elections in early 2015 after Parliament is dissolved.
"It will get done. But the ball is not in our court right now," Lamothe said.
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