News from Haiti

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Haiti changes date again for runoff election

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, March 11 (Reuters) - Haiti's electoral authorities on Saturday brought forward slightly the date for runoff elections to pick senators and legislators.

Originally due to take place on March 19 and then rescheduled for April 23, the second-round vote will now take place on April 21, a Friday, ostensibly to allow officials the weekend to prepare for classes on Monday the schools that will be used as voting centers.

"We finally decided to organize the second round on April 21, which is a Friday, for practical reasons," Max Mathurin, president of the Provisional Electoral Council, told Reuters.

Elections are usually held on Sundays in Haiti, the poorest and most unstable country in the Americas.

An exception was the presidential election on Feb. 7, the first national ballot since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted in February 2004 by an armed revolt and under international pressure to quit.

Mathurin said the council decided to hold the runoff on a Friday to give election workers the whole weekend to put desks, chairs and other equipment back in place in time for schools to open on Monday.

"When we have the election on Friday, at least they will have Saturday and Sunday to starting cleaning and reorganizing," he said.

None of the contenders in the races held alongside the presidential election on Feb. 7 for 30 Senate seats and 99 seats in the lower house appear to have won the majority -- 50 percent plus one vote -- needed for a first-round victory.

President-elect Rene Preval, a onetime Aristide ally and like him a champion of the Caribbean nation's poor masses, was himself originally awarded just under 50 percent of the votes after a week of ballot counting.

But, fearing angry protests by his supporters and mindful of growing allegations of vote fraud seemingly aimed at denying Preval a first-round win, the electoral authorities decided to change the way they counted ballots with no votes cast on them and thereby handed him a victory.

Preval was originally supposed to take office on April 29, but his inauguration is expected to be delayed because of the inability to hold the second round of the legislative election on time. He could take office in the first week of May.

The party that holds a majority in parliament will pick a prime minister and form a government.

No party seems likely to obtain an outright majority but Preval has been meeting other parties in hopes of building a governing coalition that can bridge the deep divides in the country of 8.5 million, in particular the deep distrust between the poor and the small, wealthy elite.