PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) _ The ballot is as crowded as the earthquake-ravaged capital itself, and a collapsed presidential palace is the prize. The voter rolls are filled with the dead, and living citizens are still struggling to figure out if and where they can vote while worrying about political violence and a spreading cholera epidemic.
It's Election Sunday in post-quake Haiti.
Some polls began opening in major cities nearly 50 minutes after the 6 a.m. scheduled time. Only 20 people were waiting when a central voting station opened in Cap-Haitien, a slow start in a largely rural country where people tend to be early risers.
Ninety-six contenders are competing for 11 Senate seats and more than 800 more are seeking to fill the 99-seat lower house. There are local and municipal races as well.
But the focus is on the presidential contest. Nineteen candidates are on the ballot, but many Haitians believe the race comes down to a man who is not: outgoing President Rene Preval, who was barred by law from running again.
The laconic leader twice sailed into office bolstered by supporters of his former ally, ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But in Preval's second term, those voters branded him a traitor for not returning Aristide from exile.
Frustrations also grew among the jobless masses as Haiti's economy continued to be one of the world's worst. When the earthquake struck last Jan. 12 and a stunned Preval hid from sight, impatience turned to anger that has fueled anti-government protests.
The candidate of Preval's recently formed Unity party is Jude Celestin, the little-known head of the state-run construction company whose dump trucks carted many of the quake's estimated 300,000 dead to mass graves. His well-funded campaign included airplanes trailing banners with his name and dropping leaflets that flutter like yellow-and-green birds over tent camps for people made homeless by the quake.
A text message sent to Haitian cell phones Saturday summed up the primary message of Celestin's campaign: ``Let's assure stability.'' His campaign workers already refer to him as ``The President.''
Some opinion polls put Mirlande Manigat, 70-year-old former first lady whose husband was helped to power and then deposed by a military junta, as a more popular contender than Celestin.
Popular musician Michel ``Sweet Micky'' Martelly, known for jazzy, sarcastic dance music, had thousands of urban youths toting his pink signs and shouting to ``Vote for the bald head!''
Some Aristide supporters are expected to back lawyer Jean-Henry Ceant, running on the ``Love Haiti'' ticket. Aristide's Fanmi Lavalas party was disqualified on an unexplained technicality, sparking threats of a boycott by supporters.
Ousted former prime ministers Jacques Edouard Alexis and Yvone Neptune are seeking political rehabilitation, as is Charles-Henri Baker, a garment factory owner who lost to Preval five years ago.
Wyclef Jean, whose own bid for president ended with an August disqualification, was in Haiti on Sunday. Jean supporters said on Twitter that the Haitian-American singer would not be publicly endorsing anyone — a blow to any candidate hoping for a last-minute boost from his legions of young fans.
Clashes among rival political camps caused several deaths in recent weeks. At least one person was killed in a clash between Celestin and Baker's supporters in the far western town of Jeremie.
On Friday night, Martelly aides said a hail of bullets ended his campaign-closing rally in the southwestern peninsula town of Les Cayes, with one supporter reported killed. His campaign blamed the unconfirmed attack on ``Mr. Preval and his heir apparent, Mr. Jude Celestin, (and) the Unity (party) hierarchy.''
Unity officials did not respond to requests for comment.
The victor gets a five-year term at the helm of a disastrous economy and leadership of an increasingly angry and suffering population worn down by decades of poverty, the earthquake, a recent hurricane and now a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,600 people.
And the election's winner will assume an office has had only one occupant survive and complete a full, constitutional term in more than 200 years: Rene Preval.
Yet there is an unprecedented opportunity in store for the new president: overseeing the largest capital spending spree in Haiti's history, the $10 billion pledged in foreign reconstruction aid after the quake. Very little of the money has been delivered so far, as many donor nations wait to see who will take over the government.
Donors also want to see if the election goes off as planned — and the results are deemed fair.
More than 4.7 million voters are registered on electoral lists. Overseeers with the United Nations and Organization of American States acknowledge that hundreds of thousands are people who died in the earthquake, while many living voters who want to participate have not received their voter cards or are unsure where their polling places are.
``We're looking at the best elections possible under the circumstances,'' OAS Assistant Secretary-General Albert Ramdin, who is in Haiti to monitor the elections, told The Associated Press. ``We know that the (voter) list is not complete. We know that the
list is inflated. We know that much more needed to be done to be on time in terms of training of polling station workers.''
Ramdin said the OAS helped deliver 800,000 voter cards in recent days. Its 120 observers planned to visit about 40 percent of the 1,500 voting centers Sunday. Other observers include a small European Union team, a much larger group of national observers and visitors including a delegation of 12 U.S. Congress members
Preliminary results are not expected until Dec. 7, and all but the most confident supporters of individual candidates expect to see a run-off for races at all levels.
Political passions often translate into violence during Haitian ballots. But election fervor was muted Saturday in the northern town of Limbe, where hundreds lay stricken with cholera. AP journalists had to ask nearly a dozen people before finding one who knew the location of a polling station.
The town was festooned with Celestin posters, but resident Jean Gil Fresnel predicted Manigat will win.
``Preval sent him and Preval's no good,'' Fresnel, 37, said as he leaned against a bicycle. ``Preval hasn't done anything. He hasn't built any schools, he hasn't brought any jobs and now he wants us to support this guy?''
Others said they were skipping it completely.
``I'm not going to vote because the politicians never do anything for this country,'' said Frantz Varvit, a 29-year-old bracelet-maker. ``You go vote and nothing changes.''
Associated Press writers Jonathan M. Katz reported this story in Port-au-Prince and Ben Fox in Limbe.