News from Haiti

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Tensions intensify over slow vote count in Haiti's election

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti - Thousands of supporters of presidential candidate Rene Preval poured into the Haitian capital's streets Sunday to demand that electoral officials announce the results of elections held five days ago and end the increasingly suspicious delays in ballot counting.

But by 6:30 p.m. the electoral council had not updated the vote results since just after 9 a.m., arousing concerns that the council does not want to announce that Preval won an outright majority, which would avert a run-off against the second-place finisher.

In this deeply divided country, racked by years of violence and political turmoil, the delays in tabulating the votes from the presidential and legislative elections on Tuesday has been creating increasingly dangerous tensions.

At 9 a.m., Preval held 49.1 percent of the 75.8 percent of voting centers counted, and was trailed far behind by former President Leslie Manigat with 11.7 percent. Most of the ballots left to be tallied, however, come from the Port-au-Prince area, where Preval has been getting more than 60 percent of the votes counted.

Tuesday's balloting saw unexpectedly high turnout, as voters rose before dawn and flocked to the polls in the first election since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide fled the country during a political opposition movement and armed rebellion in 2004.

Foreign electoral advisers say a survey of 1,340 polling stations across the country - conducted by Haitian observers and funded by the Washington-based National Democratic Institute - shows Preval would get over 52 percent when all the votes are counted.

But the official results have been beset by delays.

Of some 800 voting centers in the country, nine were destroyed by political parties fighting for control of the counting.

"In Bombardopolis, four candidates personally went to the voting center and trashed the polling stations," said David Wimhurst, a spokesman for the U.N. Mission here. "Don't ask me why they did it, but they did it."

An estimated 2 percent of the results from the polling stations never arrived to the tabulation center. Wimhurst say some of the bags have been found and are on the there way.

"There is a certain laxity in the system," he said.

The tally sheets from another 504 stations had various problems that required U.N. advisers to try to work out before they could be tabulated. The most common issue is that poll workers recorded the wrong station numbers atop the form.

But because the nine-member electoral council is comprised of Preval's rivals, many of his supporters suspect the group is trying to manipulate results to force a run-off in which his opponents can gang up on him.

"When we vote we are not kidding!" a crowd of several hundred chanted in front of the Hotel Montana, an upscale hotel where the electoral council has been announcing the results.

"Give him to us! Give him to us!" one visibly enraged woman screamed.

Preval, who was president from 1996 to 2001, went into politics on the same wave of populism that ended the Duvalier family dictatorship and brought Aristide to power in 1991. While Preval is clearly more moderate than Aristide, a fiery former priest, part of Haiti's business elite is loath to see him back in the presidential palace.

"For the good of the country I cannot let this guy get into power," said Charles Henry Baker, an apparel manufacturer and opposition candidate who ran a distant third with about 9 percent of the vote. "He's an incompetent fool, and he is the worse thing that could happen to Haiti if he gets into power."

Such zeal is why many Port-au-Prince's dispossessed believe the business and political elite are working to steal the election from Preval.

"The business sector doesn't want him," said Milka Jeanty, shining shoes downtown. "They're the ones doing all this scheming. We know he won."

The mood of the demonstrators Sunday was mostly festive, as they seemed confident Preval would win. They danced and sang and played the homemade trumpets they will use later this month in Carnival. Later several hundred used a side-road to bypass a phalanx of police and U.N. peacekeepers to demonstrate at the front gate of the Hotel Montana.

The group's songs kept the same merry tune, but the lyrics kept changing.

"Bring us Jacques Bernard! Bring us Jacques Bernard!" they sang to soldiers holding them back. Bernard is the director general of the electoral council, and the man who had been announcing the results.

In Miami, about 1,800 Haitians gathered along Northeast 54th Street at North Miami Avenue, the heart of Little Haiti, to celebrate Preval's victory and embrace his ally, Father Gerard Jean-Juste, only recently released from a Port-au-Prince prison. Jean-Juste, speaking from a stage set up for the occasion, told the crowd Preval had garnered more than 53 percent of the vote, which "the mathematicians will say equals 54 percent."

"The people are happy because we have a new president," said participant Eric Ceron.

But this is not certain.

By most accounts, the council has stumbled in a perilous way - giving few news conferences and coming across as resistant to give the results. In the morning Sunday, Bernard told diplomats the tabulation would be done by early evening.

"They have to finish tonight so they will finish tonight," said Juan Gabriel Valdes, the head of the 9,500-member U.N. Peacekeeping mission here, which is all but running the technical aspects of the election.

But by 6 p.m., Bernard once again told them they would not finish that night. He did not hold a news conference, but said updated results might be posted later at night.