News from Haiti

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

U.N. Guards Dump Where Vote Boxes Found

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 15, 2006 (AP) U.N. officials sent troops to a garbage dump near the Haitian capital to collect hundreds of smashed ballot boxes and vote count material on Wednesday, more than a week after Haiti's disputed presidential elections.

Associated Press journalists saw hundreds of empty ballot boxes, at least one vote tally sheet and several empty bags, numbered and signed by the heads of polling stations, strewn across the fly infested dump five miles north of the capital.

"That's extraordinary," said U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst.

Leading candidate Rene Preval has alleged that the Feb. 7 vote was marred by "massive fraud or gross errors" designed to leave him just short of the majority needed for a first-round presidential victory.

A wave of chaotic protests by Preval supporters sent foreign diplomats scrambling for peaceful solutions.

Ambassadors from countries "directly involved in the crisis" were discussing a Brazilian plan to persuade the other candidates to recognize Preval's victory and thus prevent a mass uprising, according to Marco Aurelio Garcia, foreign affairs adviser to Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council urged Haitians to respect election results and refrain from violence, and it extended the Brazilian-led U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti for six months, until Aug. 15.

Haiti's interim government had ordered the count suspended with 90 percent of the votes tallied, pending a review of vote tally sheets by an investigative commission representing the president's office, the electoral council and Preval's party.

"We are looking closely at specimens of the ballots found at the dump, to check whether these are real ballots," said Michel Brunache, chief of staff of interim President Boniface Alexandre. He said the ballots were being examined by the judiciary, because the investigating commission had not yet been formed.

But Max Mathurin, the electoral council president, said Wednesday that election workers are ignoring the government order and continuing to tabulate results.

"The government and the established commission can't under any circumstances ask or order the cancellation of the operations," Mathurin told Radio Metropole. Workers have completed 92 percent of the vote count, he added, while refusing to release any more information. "When everything is ready, we're going to publish the official results," he said.

Mathurin also denied that the electoral had manipulated the vote count. "We're working transparently _ If Preval has 50 percent plus one vote, he will be the president. If that's not the case, there will be a second round."

Of the 2.2 million ballots cast, about 125,000 ballots have been declared invalid because of irregularities, raising suspicions among Preval supporters. Another 4 percent were blank but were still added into the total, making it harder for Preval to obtain a majority.

The electoral council's latest published results show Preval _ a former president and agronomist _ having 48.76 percent of the vote with 90 percent of ballots counted. A former protege of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide who likewise enjoys wide support among Haiti's poor majority, Preval has urged his supporters to continue protesting nonviolently.

Preval also has vowed to formally challenge the results if officials insist on holding a March runoff. Haiti's constitution indicates that a challenge would go to the Supreme Court, but the interim government recently decreed that any complaints should go to the electoral commission _ the same body accused of manipulating the results.

Late Tuesday, the local Telemax TV news broadcast images from the dump north of the capital showing smashed white ballot boxes with wads of ballots strewn about. Ballot after ballot was marked for Preval.

Among the bags seen by AP was one vote tally sheet from the Port-au-Prince neighborhood of Carrefour that recorded 129 votes for Preval out of 202 cast.

A man picking through the dump, Jean-Ricot Guerrier, said the material was dumped by a truck the day after the election, and that someone had tried to burn the material before rainfall put out the fire.

Wimhurst said the ballots could have come from any of nine polling stations across the country that were ransacked on election day, forcing officials to throw out up to 35,000 votes. At least one voting center was destroyed by people tired of waiting in line and others were destroyed by political factions, he said.

Both Wimhurst and Mathurin raised the possibility that someone dumped the ransacked ballots to create an appearance of fraud, and Mathurin said U.N. troops would be responsible for any unprotected ballots. U.N. provided security for the vote and helped ship election returns to the capital, but is not directly involved in counting ballots.

A runoff election would pit Preval against second-place finisher Leslie Manigat, also a former president, who received 11.8 percent with 90 percent of the vote counted. Manigat's wife, Myrlande Manigat, declined to say whether anyone had approached him about withdrawing.