News from Haiti

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Charges of vote-count manipulation hit Haiti poll

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (Reuters) - Haitians awaited the final results of their first election since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was driven from power amid growing concern that the vote tabulation, which has taken more than four days, was being manipulated.

Former president Rene Preval, who leads the first round of voting by a wide margin, complained that there was a "problem" with the counting of votes, and two members of the nine-member council that oversees elections said there was "manipulation" at the tabulation center in the capital.

Preval, an Aristide protege who worries the wealthy elite who helped oust Aristide in February 2004, held 49.1 percent of the votes counted so far, according to results posted on Sunday morning on the Provisional Electoral Council's (CEP) Web site.

Preval needs 50 percent to avoid a March 19 run-off against the second-place candidate, currently ex-president Leslie Manigat at 11.7 percent.

The Haitian capital, plagued by violence and kidnappings in the months before the election, remained relatively quiet on Sunday, five days after an election that was carried out in relative peace, though some polling centers were chaotic.

South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Laureate, said Sunday Mass with hundreds of Haitians at St. Trinity Cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince and praised Haitians for a peaceful election.

"You have shown the world that the Haitian people are not violent. You have shown the world that the Haitian people can be, are, tolerant," he said. "You have shown the world that Haitian people say 'No' to violence and intolerance, 'Yes' to peace."

The controversy that erupted Sunday over the election results centered on the electoral council's Web site and those issued by the council's director-general.

Jacques Bernard, the director general, said on Sunday that Preval had just under 49 percent. Figures on the Web site late Sunday had Preval at 49.1. But a graphic on the Web site generated by computer had Preval at 52 percent, above the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

"I went to school and the CEP has given two figures, 52 percent and 49 percent. Now there is a problem," said Preval, talking to reporters while sitting on a bench in the village square in his mountain hometown of Marmelade. "Forty-nine percent I don't pass. Fifty percent I pass."

Observers have said a second-round of voting could change the dynamic of the election because some of the candidates who oppose Preval, seen as the champion of Haiti's poor masses, have agreed to rally behind the second-place candidate.

Pierre Richard Duchemin and Patrick Fequiere, two of the nine members of the elections council, said the vote tabulation was being manipulated and blamed Bernard.

"The percent which is given by the graphic is done by the computer according to figures entered by a data operator and the computer can't lie," said Duchemin, who was in charge of the voting tabulation center. He said he had been excluded from viewing data.

"There is an unwholesome manipulation of the data. Nothing is transparent," he said.

Bernard was not immediately available for reply to the charge.

Adding to the controversy was the issue of 72,000 blank ballots, on which no vote was cast. Even though they contained no vote, they were being added to vote totals used to calculate each candidate's percentage. The net effect was to lower each candidate's percentage, dropping Preval 50 percent.

A spokesman for the election council said blank votes had not been counted in past elections.