News from Haiti

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Confusion mars early hours of voting in Haitian elections - Miami Herald

PORT-AU-PRINCE - Confusion and frustration mounted during the first hours of Haiti's national election today as masses of voters set out before dawn to cast their ballots but found many polling places disorganized and unable to open on time.

Haitian electoral officials and U.N. advisors said they were scrambling to fix the problems but described them as isolated. ''We are in control of the situation,'' electoral council spokesman Stephen Lecroix told a news conference.

But at one of three polling centers that serves the volatile slum of Cité Soleil -- a place where electoral officials and U.N advisors have repeatedly assured wary voters and observers that they were prepared -- supervisors were woefully unprepared.

By 6 A.M. when the center was supposed to open, an estimated 3,000 people had lined up. They continued to arrive by the hundreds, marching excitedly and jogging. An hour later there were at least 5,000 lined up a half-mile back.

Most said said they were there to vote for Réne Préval, a former president and one-time protege of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. Préval has become a symbol of hope in the bullet-pocked slums where Aristide once had strong support.

The election is the first since Aristide fled the country in the face of an armed rebellion in 2004. Haitians and foreign observers alike are hoping it will deliver the country from the ensuing two years of bloodshed and instability.

But inside the polling station, the manager said he didn't have enough tables to start the voting. Outside, people began to push forward, wondering if it would open.

By 7:30 A.M., a group of unknown agitators began to whip the crowd into a fury, saying the government was trying to prevent the poor from voting.

''They don't want you to vote! They don't want you to vote!'' one shouted.

The front of the line turned into a mass at the metal gate of the voting center, slamming it and demanding to get in. When the gate was opened to let a car in, the group stampeded inside, trampling at least two women and creating pandemonium.

The orderly line fell apart as voters could see the chaos ahead of them. Some of the crowd launched a protest, running up the main boulevard and chasing away police and three jeeps of U.N. peacekeepers.

''This is a make-believe election,'' said Robert Bonnet, 36. ``This is organized for the bourgeoisie to vote. This is not an election for the people to vote.''

As protesters reached the headquarters of the Haitian electoral council the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, Charge d'Affairs Tim Carney, stopped by.

Carney said the confusion was isolated to parts of the capital.