Haitians patiently await final election results

One candidate alleged fraud, but international observers cited no serious irregularities. René Préval held early lead.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

The streets remained empty Thursday, with shops closed, businesses boarded up, and schools locked: Haiti, as if holding its breath, waited patiently as the ballots continued to trickle in.

Final results from Tuesday's presidential election are expected over the weekend. At press time Thursday, partial returns show that René Préval had a comfortable lead over his 33 opponents - a finding that at least one of his rivals said was not acceptable.

With 9,000 UN troops and 5,000 Haitian police out in full force to maintain security, National Police Chief Mario Andersol warned of the possibility of violence, should candidates feel the vote wasn't going their way. Election day itself, despite massive disorganization, was generally peaceful - giving hope to many here that the entire exercise would be a success.

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"We have gotten this far. Let's continue to be calm," begged Rosemond Pradel, secretary general of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP).

The reason it has taken so long for the votes to be counted, explained Mr. Pradel, was that the ballots were still being ferried - by plane, truck, and even mule - from around the country to the vote tabulation center in Port-au-Prince, often over difficult terrain. Logistical and technical problems have beset Haiti's election, the first since President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted two years ago.

Polling stations across Port-au-Prince - from the Cité Soleil slum to the upscale Petionville suburb - began posting results late Wednesday, most showing Préval with between 60 and 92 percent of the vote. Though Préval's support outside the capital is not as strong, his political adviser Bob Manuel told reporters he felt confident his candidate would win more than 50 percent of the votes nationwide, thus avoiding a run-off and becoming Haiti's next president.

Préval, an ally of Mr. Aristide, has remained secluded all week in his rural hometown of Marmelade and refused to comment on developments.

But candidate Charles Henri Baker, a wealthy businessman who, according to pre-election polling, is Préval's closest opponent, called the elections "a mess" Thursday and saidhis party was collecting evidence of fraud. "Even if you got ink on your finger, it was the kind that washed off on your pants when wet," he said. Pradel dismissed those claims, saying it was the same sort of ink used in all past Haitian elections.

"We have eyewitnesses to voters casting ballots up to eight times by going to different stations," Baker also charged in a phone interview. "This has to be looked into."

International election monitoring groups have said, however, that, despite minor irregularities, there was no credible evidence of widespread fraud. "Having been on the ground in Haiti observing the preparations and the elections, I would say it was a reasonably fair election," Knowlson Gift, Trinidad's Foreign Minister, told The Associated Press.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, meanwhile, congratulated the Haitian people in a statement Wednesday in New York, saying he was pleased that, "compared to previous elections, [this one] ... was remarkably free from violence." The secretary-general appealed to all to respect the official results to be announced by the CEP and said it was "essential that all political and social actors come together in a spirit of national reconciliation and dialogue."

Baker, however, stressed there was "no way" he would consider partaking in a future Préval government. "[Préval's] morality and mine don't mix together. I am an honest person. I believe in the law. So I don't think we will be working together," said Baker, adding: "We will be in bad shape if he becomes president."

Even as the process of counting the votes and evaluating the election stretched on, and fears of future violence weighed down on Haiti, many here tried to begin discussing the next steps for the country.

"We have spent so long talking about ballots and IDs and polling stations - but what about the issues?" asked Maryse Kedar, a former minister under Préval, pointing at what many here have called a "substance-lite" election. "What are the new ideas that have come from this process? How are we going to fix Haiti?"

"We remain very divided," said Jean-Junior Joseph, a spokesman for interim Prime Minister Gérard Latortue, who stressed that he hopes the elections do not end up adding to that divide. "This country really needs reconciliation and dialogue. That should be our first priority."

Ms. Harman is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.

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