Haitian stability threatened in wake of contested presidential election

The streets of Port-au-Prince are largely calm Monday. But a majority of opposition candidates have denounced Sunday's race as fraudulent. Many fear that peace is only temporary.

By , Correspondent

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    Haitian presidential and legislative ballots are seen lying on the floor November 29 after angry voters trashed the voting center on Sunday in Port-au-Prince. Haiti's elections ended in confusion on Sunday as 12 of the 18 presidential candidates denounced "massive fraud" and demanded the polls be annulled and street protests erupted over voting delays and problems.
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Still recovering from the Jan. 12 earthquake and contending with a deadly outbreak of cholera, Haitians are now grappling with the contested outcome of a presidential election that could threaten to undermine tenuous stability in this country.

Two-thirds of the opposition candidates in Sunday's poll have joined together to denounce the race, even though results are not due out for several days. They allege widespread fraud, including voter intimidation and ballot box stuffing, and voters responded with street demonstrations in various pockets of the country yesterday.

Calm returned to Haitian streets Monday, with many voters saying they were little surprised by the allegations, but some observers fear that tensions could simmer, and political organizers say they are planning further demonstrations.

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IN PICTURES: Haiti elections

“We’re organizing peaceful mobilizations across the country. They will be ongoing,” says Chavannes Jean-Baptiste, a political organizer and founder of the Peasant Movement of Papaye. “The country did not have an election yesterday. It was a selection.”

Small, peaceful demonstrations were seen Monday in Port-au-Prince and reported in the northern city of Gonaives, Haiti’s second largest. Some Haitians in the capital burned tires in protest Monday afternoon.

Campaign workers for two presidential candidates, Mirlande Manigat and Michel Martelly, said they expected protests to grow in coming days to put pressure on the country’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), which oversees the elections. But they could provide no details.

Twelve presidential candidates, including Ms. Manigat and Mr. Martelly, on Sunday denounced the elections as a “massive fraud.” They called for the vote to be canceled.

Thousands of voters were turned away at polls because their names did not appear on voter rolls. Claims of ballot stuffing and voter intimidation were widespread but international observers were still piecing together the reports as of Monday afternoon.

“There were clearly problems with intimidation and attempts at fraud. How widespread it was and whether it caused the closing of polling places is what we’re still trying to figure out,” says James Morrell, executive director of the Haiti Democracy Project, which is leading a group of polling place observers who were spread throughout the country Sunday.

CEP officials said there was no reason to void the results. Around 3.5 percent of polling places – which would be 385 of 11,000 – were closed due to violence or vandalism, they said. “We can’t say that during the elections there weren’t some irregularities, and we will investigate them,” CEP President Gaillot Dorsinvil said Sunday.

Opposition candidates focused their anger on President Rene Preval’s Inite party and its presidential candidate Jude Celestin, who ran the government’s construction agency before being pushed into the national spotlight with Mr. Preval’s endorsement.

Mr. Celestin’s campaign declined to comment as staff members were meeting to evaluate Sunday’s events.

Members of the United Nations planned meetings to discuss the claims. And electoral observers from the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Caribbean Community organization (CARICOM) planned to make a statement later Monday on their findings.

Voters, meanwhile, expressed little surprise that election day ended with demonstrations and claims of fraud.

“We knew that there were going to be problems because there are always problems,” says Rene Francois, an unemployed carpenter as he stood on a street still filled with rubble from the January earthquake. “What is important now is that it stays calm.”

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