News from Haiti

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Protesters demand Haiti election results

Port-au-Prince, February 12, 2006, Hundreds of people marched in Haiti's capital on Saturday in support of ex-president Rene Preval, and some accused elections officials of trying to steal the first vote since Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted two years ago.

Preval, the one-time Aristide ally was leading with just over 50 per cent of the vote - the majority he would need to avoid a second round of voting on March 19.

Four days after the election, less than two-thirds of the votes had been counted, creating suspicion among residents of Preval's stronghold in the Cite Soleil slum that the vote was being manipulated.

Demonstrators swarmed the National Palace, where they tore down large posters of the nearly three dozen presidential candidates that had been attached to the metal fence surrounding the palace grounds - all but Preval's.

Preval's campaign demanded copies of vote-count forms after the latest tallies from Tuesday's election showed at least 105,000 spoiled ballots.

An elections council member said the number of spoiled ballots was "suspect" and called for an investigation.

With 63 per cent of polling stations reporting and about 1.4 million ballots tallied so far, another ex-president, Leslie Manigat, was running second with 11.9 per cent and industrialist Charles Baker, considered the candidate of the wealthy elite, was third with 7.8 per cent.

"If they don't give us Preval, there will be no peace. Somebody paid the election council to give away the result," Marie, 46, shouted. "We did not vote for Manigat. We did not vote for Baker. We voted for Preval."

A victory for Preval could prove unsettling to the United States, which worked to push Aristide from power two years ago. On Friday, Washington urged Preval, who maintained a low profile in his mountain hometown of Marmelade in the north, to oppose Aristide's return from exile in South Africa.

Preval inherited Aristide's strong support in the slums of Port-au-Prince and his possible victory concerned the wealthy elite who helped oust Aristide.

In Cite Soleil, Haiti's largest slum and a stronghold of Aristide, demonstrators ran through the streets past tumbledown shanties and open sewers, waving tree branches and shouting "Preval is our president!" They demanded a speedier vote count.

"We voted for Preval to move this country," said Jean-Paul LeBlante, 38. "If there is a problem (with the election) we will have an explosion. There will not be enough water to put out the fire in this country."

Demonstrators complained about Preval's shrinking lead. He held 61 per cent after the first results were released on Thursday, and seemed headed toward a first-round victory, but just over half in Friday's results, leading some to believe elections officials were trying to fix the vote.

About 7.6 per cent of the ballots counted so far were rejected. In some places, the number was much higher. In the southern Nippes department, for example, 14.1 per cent of ballots were spoiled, and in the Centre department, 12.9 per cent.

"It is suspect," said Patrick Fequiere, an electoral council member who often finds himself at odds with other members. "It should be investigated."

Baker, the third-place candidate, has also asked for an investigation into possible fraud.

International observers have said there were irregularities at the polls but probably not enough to taint the result.

Claude Parent, director of a mission representing eight countries in the Americas including Canada and the United States, said some voters put an X over the picture of the candidate rather than in the circle next to the picture.

At some polling stations those ballots were counted and at others they were rejected, he said, adding that the ballots that clearly indicated who the voter meant to choose should be counted.

"We think this election should be something that the international community should accept and we think the Haitian people should accept it," Parent said.