News from Haiti

Friday, February 10, 2006

Haiti poll leader's margin narrows

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) -- Presidential candidate Rene Preval's lead narrowed Friday as more ballots were counted, raising the possibility he would have to face a runoff against the second-place finisher to determine who will lead this fractured and impoverished nation.

If Preval wins outright or in a second round and moves into the cream-colored presidential palace, he will face a weighty agenda to pull Haiti from the brink of collapse.

Election workers were still tallying votes late Friday, three days after a huge voter turnout almost overwhelmed poll workers.

Preval, a former president and agronomist who is highly popular among the poor, had 50.26 percent of 1.1 million valid votes counted so far, the electoral council said. More than 1.75 million voters cast ballots, U.N. officials said.

If no candidate wins a majority, a runoff between the top two vote-getters will be held March 19.

A candidate running a distant third said he wanted the electoral council to investigate reports of fraud, claiming some people voted several times. International observers have widely praised Tuesday's elections as free and fair.

If Preval wins, he will have to immediately begin negotiating with opposition parties in parliament, where his Lespwa Party is expected to be weak, to select a prime minister. And he must stem gang violence that is driving out manufacturers and eliminating thousands of jobs.

"Everything in Haiti is broken and everything needs fixing," said Robert Maguire, director of the international affairs program at Trinity University in Washington. "One of the most immediate tasks is reconciliation and dialogue among Haitians."

This desperately poor Caribbean nation has been without an elected leadership and has been descending into anarchy since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in a bloody rebellion two years ago. The huge voter turnout Tuesday showed Haitians long for stability.

Unconventional style
Preval has refrained from declaring victory, but indicated he would have an unconventional style.

"Don't ask me to wear a tie," he told reporters Friday in his home village of Marmelade. He also recalled his youthful days as an anarchist.

"I still am," he quipped, adding that he is a nonviolent one who believes power should flow from government to the people.

Preval must help bring together Haiti's polarized society that is split between the few rich and the majority poor, experts say.

Preval already has strong support from Cite Soleil, the huge shantytown where U.N. peacekeepers regularly traded fire with well-armed gang members before the election.

"I think Preval is going to come in and help with health care, put more schools in the slum, bring treated water to drink and teams who can come in and clean the sewers," a gang leader who goes by the name Toutou said in an interview with The Associated Press in Cite Soleil.

Toutou, who describes himself as a social activist rather than a gang leader, said the armed factions in Cite Soleil are willing to "put down our guns" if their opponents do the same.

Preval's honeymoon period is apt to be short among those who live in the sprawling slums, where a lack of opportunity has steered young men into gangs that have battled with U.N. peacekeepers and kidnapped hundreds of people for ransom.

"The window will probably not be open too long," Maguire said. "He will have to show some improvement in their lives. And he will need partnerships of Haitians with resources to do this."

Since wealthier Haitians have been among the kidnap victims, "It's in their interest ultimately to become proactive in trying to address the problems of Haiti's poor," Maguire said in a telephone interview.

Election returns indicated Preval might have enough votes to win outright and avoid a March runoff between the top two finishers. The early returns had Leslie Manigat, a former president, with 11.41 percent of the vote and businessman Charles Henri Baker with 8.3 percent.

Baker claimed there was fraud.

"We're starting to hear that people voted five times, 10 times, 20 times," Baker said. "This is a worry to us because we don't know if it happened at one center, 10 centers ... or all over the country."

Officials at Haiti's electoral office weren't immediately available for comment.

If Preval wins, it will be people like Baker -- a wealthy garment factory owner -- he must try to win over so Haiti charts a new course.

"Preval is going to have to be bringing people to the table and finding common ground to move forward," Maguire said. "It is going to be quite a challenge."