News from Haiti

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Calls for calm as Haiti poll leader faces runoff

PORT-AU-PRINCE: Haitian authorities appealed for calm yesterday as Rene Preval, a champion of the poor, dipped below the 50 per cent vote needed to win presidential elections outright.

With a quarter of the votes still to be counted, Mr Preval, a former president, had 49.6 per cent of the vote and a huge lead over his rivals, but fell just short of the majority he needs to avert a second-round vote.
This stirred tensions in the volatile Caribbean nation, where thousands of residents of the Port-au-Prince slums took to the streets, chanting their conviction that Mr Preval had already won.

Authorities urged Haitians to await the outcomes of the February 7 presidential and legislative elections when they are announced today.

Mr Preval's 49.6 per cent lead was trailed by former president Leslie Manigat with 11 per cent and wealthy industrialist Charles Baker with 8 per cent.

"I urge the population not to demonstrate so as not to soil a pure and magnanimous act, because such demonstrations could lead to violence," said electoral council director Jacques Bernard.

"Don't let politicians manipulate you to make disorder. The final results will come," an election official told listeners on Haitian radio.

While the rallies were peaceful, a senior UN official in Haiti said that if Mr Preval was not elected in the first round "there is a risk of violent demonstrations", particularly in the Cite Soleil shantytown, a stronghold of Preval support.

"If there is a second round, the most radical elements in Cite Soleil will claim Preval's victory was stolen," he said, asking not to be identified.

In one march, pro-Preval demonstrators chanted in front of the Presidential Palace, then ripped up posters of the 32 other candidates on the palace fence, leaving only Mr Preval's picture on display.

"What is taking so long?" asked Jean Philip, a Preval organiser in the poor Bel Aire area. "I think they're trying to steal the vote."

Should the election go to a runoff, due on March 19, Mr Preval would probably battle it out with Mr Manigat, 75.

Mr Preval is an ally of Jean Bertrand Aristide, the former president who was forced from office and fled Haiti in 2004 amid armed opposition and diplomatic pressure from Washington and Paris.