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by Amy Bracken

Election Results Were Aristide's Revenge

(IPS) PORT-AU-PRINCE -- After a week of vote-counting marred by charges of fraud, angry demonstrations and tense political discussions, Haiti has officially elected a president: Rene Garcia Preval.

Haiti's electoral council declared Preval president in the pitch-black, wee hours of Thursday morning, stunning observers who had expected at least another week of investigations, recounting and nail-biting.

The announcement came after the council decided to recalculate the vote count in a way that boosted Preval's percentage of the vote.

As word spread of the imminent announcement late Wednesday night, Haitians across the country tuned on radios and televisions to hear the official word. By daybreak, joyful demonstrators were filling the streets of Port-au-Prince, singing and dancing their way to a gathering outside the National Palace, Preval's future office.

Preval, an agronomist who spends most of his time in the small northern town of Marmelade, already served as president from 1995 to 2000, between the two terms of Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Since Aristide's ouster following an armed uprising two years ago, Haiti has been run by an unelected provisional government, and Aristide's most vocal supporters, in the slums around Port-au-Prince, have demanded their president's return from exile in South Africa.

For many who first swore they would boycott elections to protest Aristide's ouster, Preval became their new hope. Hundreds who were laid off from government jobs after Aristide's departure believe Preval will bring employment, as well as roads, parks, and even peace.

The soft-spoken president-elect, scheduled to take office Mar. 29, made no public appearance or statement the day he was declared winner.

Early Thursday morning, 30-year-old Marie Suze wore a yellow Preval tee-shirt and held hands with a friend as she walked around the palace. She said she saw the news of Preval's victory on the Internet at 11:45, and then heard it on the radio at midnight.

"We didn't sleep," she said. "No one slept last night. We all got on the phone and talked to each other. We all felt such joy because it's what we want... I think everything will change with Preval."

Not only had many of those around the palace not slept the night before, many had been marching through hilly Port-au-Prince for days, demanding victory for their favoured candidate -- a victory that looked elusive in spite of his overwhelming popularity.

After the Feb. 7 elections, which national and international observers praised for the high turnout and lack of organized violence, an unexpectedly slow vote count and shrinking support for Preval as results came in raised suspicions among his supporters. The extraordinary patience of a population that had put up with four Election Day postponements, voter registration problems and long lines outside polling centers was beginning to crumble.

The first partial results to be released by Haiti's electoral council reflected only 15 percent of the voting centers. They showed Preval with more than 61 percent of the vote, well above the rest of the 33 candidates, including Leslie Manigat, who at second place only had 13.4 percent.

But as more of the votes came in, Preval's lead sank below the 50 percent mark, infuriating supporters. Haiti's Constitution states that a candidate for president or Parliament must receive more than 50 percent of the vote or go to a run-off round. But among the few popular democratic elections in Haiti, there has never been a second round in the run for president.

On Monday, Port-au-Prince was paralyzed by roadblocks of burning tires and debris set up at intersections across the metropolitan area by angry Preval supporters. The latest results had shown Preval with only 48.76 percent of the vote, with 90 percent of the voting stations counted.

Magnifying the sense of injustice, a preponderance of blank votes was counted, driving up the voter pool and diminishing Preval's percentage. Haiti's electoral decree requires that unmarked ballots be included in the total when all votes are tallied, but many wondered how so many people could have waited in line for hours to cast blank ballots. Preval supporters shouted fraud.

The upheaval continued into Tuesday. Like the demonstrators, government officials and foreign ambassadors saw one solution: Preval himself. They sent a UN helicopter to retrieve him in Marmelade and bring him to the palace for a meeting.

They came up with a partial solution: Preval would be allowed to contest the elections before the final results were announced by the electoral council (in spite of a law saying candidates could only contest after the official results were out), and a commission would be established to investigate fraud. Final results would not be released until the commission had released its report. Preval, in turn, agreed to make a speech asking his supporters for calm.

That evening, the country anxiously awaited word from Preval, but he guarded his silence. Finally, Wednesday, Preval held a press conference in his sister's home on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, in which he claimed there was solid evidence of massive fraud in the elections. He encouraged his supporters to continue to demonstrate but not to block the roads.

Roadblocks were pushed aside immediately after the speech, which was aired live on TV and radio. But that afternoon things heated up again. Residents of the Preval stronghold slum Cite Soleil reported the discovery of thousands of discarded ballots and ballot boxed in a nearby garbage dump.

After images of ballots marked for Preval strewn on trash heaps aired on local television, burning roadblocks went back up, and scores of demonstrators gathered outside the electoral council headquarters after dark, some threatening to burn the building down.

Of the trash heap discovery, observers said it is likely extra ballots were discarded and subsequently marked by Preval supporters who discovered them at the dump. But such skepticism was only met with further outrage by Preval supporters.

One presidential candidate, Charles Poisset Romain, who was ranking 29th in the last tally, also expressed outrage at what he called evidence of fraud. Other candidates, including Chavannes Jeune, coming in at number four, suggested Preval should be declared the winner.

But Manigat dug in his heels, insisting that the law should be followed, and to concede to placate the angry masses would mean to give value to violence and let elections be decided on the street.

But eight of the nine members of Haiti's electoral council decided the high number of blank ballots distorted the results of elections. They decided to eliminate the blank votes from their count, reducing the total number of votes, and thus driving Preval's portion to 51.15 percent.

After eight days of excruciating tension in the streets of Port-au-Prince and across Haiti, even many of those who had voted against Preval were happy to see the conflict resolved.

Accounting student Moise Falange was walking through the crowd outside the National Palace Thursday morning, sporting a backpack on his way to class. It was the first time the roads were clear enough for him to go to class since elections.

"I voted for Manigat because he is a great intellectual," he said. "I'm not happy Preval won, but for the moment the solution is the right one because otherwise we would plunge into extreme chaos."

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Albion Monitor   February 16, 2006   (

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