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Former president favored in Haiti vote

Front-runner Preval an ex-protege of exiled Aristide

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A man is crushed as he tries to get to the entrance to a polling station to vote Tuesday in the Haitian capital.

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Haiti
Jean-Bertrand Aristide
Caribbean Area

GONAIVES, Haiti (CNN) -- Under the close watch of thousands of police and U.N. peacekeepers, Haitians flocked to -- and at times, overwhelmed -- polling places to cast ballots for the first time in six years for president and members of parliament.

In this poor Caribbean nation that has been wracked with political instability and corruption, many praise the election and the ensuing enthusiasm as a key step toward democracy.

Tens of thousands marched to the polls in the early morning hours, and long lines developed as delays occurred at some stations. Haitian election officials confirmed that polls will stay open a bit longer than usual because of logistical problems.

There have been reports of tempers flaring, pushing, shoving and tussles in the long lines, but no major violence.

Juan Gabriel Valdez, chief of the U.N. mission, said, "My first impression, well, it's that I'm hopeful that what I see as a climate of peace and participation will continue during the day."

But one observer said he was concerned that the long lines could cause problems, especially if the polls are forced to stay open past their 4 p.m. closing time. "The lines are very backed-up, and that the voting may continue past 4 and this could mean a long delay, and in some places there are not lights, but we are prepared for everything. There are many people in the voting centers," said Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary-general of the Organization of American States.

Another observer, Chris Hennemeyer, said he thought the day was "going pretty well," adding that he hadn't seen any signs of violence despite the scuffles and hot tempers.

In Port-au-Prince, the capital, "dedicated and patriotic" Haitians formed long lines to vote, Hennemeyer said, estimating that the voters are "willing to stand there until midnight if they have to in order to vote."

"There are long lines of people waiting very patiently in very hot weather. There are some technical difficulties," Hennemeyer said, "but what I'm seeing are elections that -- at least my small sample of them -- that are proceeding quite well given the circumstances of Haiti."

Polls suggested that former President Rene Preval was the favorite among 33 candidates to succeed Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has been in exile since his ouster in 2004. (Candidate profiles)

Preval, who was president from 1996 to 2000 and a former Aristide protege, has distanced himself from the exiled leader during the campaign.

Other prominent candidates include wealthy industrialist Charles Baker and former President Leslie Manigat, ousted in 1988.

If no one gains more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two candidates will meet March 19 in a runoff.

Struggle for peacekeepers

For U.N. forces organizing the election, every step has been a challenge. Frequent gunbattles in Haiti's worst slums have forced them to travel in armored vehicles.

About 7,500 troops and nearly 800 police in the U.N. stabilization force were helping Haitian police keep watch and attempting to preserve calm in the country, which long has suffered from widespread poverty and violence.

Also, Human Rights Watch said illegal arms still circulate in Haiti and "criminal gangs continue to terrorize people living in urban slums."

After several postponements, U.N. officials said they are confident the vote will move forward peacefully.

"These elections offer an opportunity for your country to move away from violence and uncertainty toward a future of peace and stability," U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday, delivering a message issued in English, French and Creole.

Checkered political past

In a recent report on the polling, Human Rights Watch noted that "in the past, elections in Haiti have often been marred by violence, disorganization and fraud."

In 1971, Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier, then 19, became Haiti's "president for life" after the death of his father, Francois, aka "Papa Doc," but economic and political instability forced him out in 1986.

Aristide was elected president in 1990, but the Haitian military arrested him in September 1991 and then ousted him from the country. He returned to power three years later after the U.N. Security Council threatened an invasion of Haiti by a multinational force and military leaders agreed to step down.

After Preval held office in the late '90s, Aristide won the 2000 election. An armed uprising in 2004 and pressure from the U.S. and French governments forced Aristide into exile.

U.S.-led forces went to restore order and then transferred power to a U.N. stabilization force.

CNN's Morgan Neill and freelance reporter Amy Bracken contributed to this report.

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