News from Haiti

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Crowds demand Preval be named Haiti president

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Shouting "Preval is president," thousands of protesters marched in the Haitian capital on Sunday demanding election results five days after the troubled Caribbean nation‘s first vote since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted two years ago.

The large demonstrations came as concerns grew that the election results, which showed former president Preval romping ahead of his rivals in the first round but just short of a majority needed to avoid a runoff, were being manipulated.

Preval, a former Aristide ally opposed by the wealthy elite in the poor Caribbean nation, complained there was a "problem" with the counting, and two members of a nine-member council that oversees elections decried "manipulation" of the count.

The electoral council had said final results would be made public on Sunday but they had not been released by early evening, as thousands rallied outside the hilltop hotel where the tally was to be announced.

Preval supporters filled a 10-block stretch of one of the teeming capital‘s main streets from sidewalk to sidewalk, singing and waving tree branches and chanting, "We voted already, Preval is president, We‘re not going to vote again!"

"I am begging the government, the election council, to make peace," Joanne Malebranche, 27, shouted as she knelt in the street and flung her arms in the air. "Let‘s make peace. Give us Preval."

Preval, who was president from 1996 to 2001 between Aristide‘s two terms, had 49.1 percent of the votes, according to the latest incomplete results on the Provisional Electoral Council‘s (CEP) Web site.

He needs more than 50 percent to avoid a March 19 run-off against the second-place candidate, currently ex-president Leslie Manigat, who had 11.7 percent.

The controversy over the results centered on a discrepancy between a graphic on the council‘s Web site and the results issued by the council‘s director-general, Jacques Bernard.

Bernard said that Preval had about 49 percent but the graphic generated by computer had him at 52 percent. The graphic was later changed to match the 49 percent figure.

"I went to school and the CEP has given two figures, 52 percent and 49 percent. Now there is a problem," Preval told 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."

Aristide was ousted by an armed revolt in February 2004 and Washington has urged Preval, if elected, not to allow the former Roman Catholic priest to return from exile.

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.

Bernard denied the result was being manipulated. He said someone forgot to update the graphic.

"They accuse me of manipulation," he said. "They say I received several million dollars to manipulate the election. None of it is true."

Adding to the controversy was the issue of 72,000 blank ballots, on which no vote was cast. They were being added to totals used to calculate each candidate‘s percentage and that helped drop Preval under 50 percent.

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