By JONATHAN M. KATZ
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Officials sorted through fraudulent ballots and scrambled for compromises to head off the threat of social unrest as Haiti prepared for the expected release Tuesday of results from its dysfunctional presidential election.
Already wracked by a cholera epidemic and still recovering from the Jan. 12 earthquake, the country is now being tested by accusations of fraud in the Nov. 28 vote and disputes over anticipated results. Rock-throwing clashes with police have been a near-daily occurrence while furious closed-door discussions take place within the provisional electoral council, or CEP. The results could be released anytime Tuesday.
If a candidate comes away with more than 50 percent of the vote, he or she will be president. The top two candidates are otherwise supposed to go on to a Jan. 16 run-off, but electoral officials on Monday were considering allowing at least a third candidate into the final round if the vote is close.
“If it’s a question of a few hundred (votes), it’s up to the CEP,” said Organization of American States-Caribbean Community chief observer Colin Granderson.
The 19-candidate ballot has effectively narrowed to three leading contenders: law professor and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, popular carnival singer Michel Martelly, and state-run construction company executive Jude Celestin.
Celestin is the preferred successor of the lame-duck and increasingly unpopular President Rene Preval, who cannot seek re-election under the constitution. The political unknown’s campaign was the best-funded of the bunch, but Preval’s inability to jump-start a moribund economy or push forward reconstruction after the massive earthquake drained support for the candidate seen as his “twin.”
Martelly’s supporters took to the streets of Port-au-Prince by the thousands while polls were still open to back their candidate. Others, primarily Manigat supporters, staged increasingly violent demonstrations last week in the towns of St. Marc and Gonaives.
Problems including widespread disorganization and outright fraud that disenfranchised thousands of voters led several candidates to call for cancellation of the vote. A much-touted hotline citizens could call to locate their polling places failed, and reporters saw instances of blatant ballot-box stuffing and marked ballots being thrown into the street.
On Friday, the eight-member provisional electoral council apologized to candidates for the problems.
Now, vote-counters under U.N. peacekeepers’ guard at a Port-au-Prince warehouse are working on a new problem: Separating clearly fraudulent tally sheets and eliminating them from being included in the final vote count.
On one tally sheet, a candidate had 200 votes against other leading candidates with about one-tenth that many, Granderson told AP. But a separate list tallying the number of voter-registration cards that had been validated at the same poll showed that only about 20 people had voted in all.
That sheet has been “quarantined” and will not be considered at all, he added, declining to say which candidate would have benefited.
Twelve opposition candidates including Martelly and Manigat alleged while polls were still open that the chaos was a concerted attempt to push Celestin into the presidential palace.
The next day they reversed position and said the count should continue, reportedly after receiving word from officials that they were leading some vote counts. U.N. peacekeeping chief Edmond Mulet said it was the “first time in 3,000 years of democracy that candidates who are potential winners of elections are seeking to annul the election process.”
Still, Martelly has threatened to upend the process if Celestin advances at all.
“If the second round is between myself and Mr. Celestin we will protest that, we will contest it. Mr. Celestin has no popularity to get to the second round, so we will not go in a second round with Mr. Jude Celestin,” Martelly told a Monday press conference.
Celestin told reporters on Friday that he was optimistic. “Whatever the result, the CEP must respect the popular vote,” he said.
Many on the streets of Port-au-Prince feel the elections were a travesty. For days protests of 1,000 people or more have clashed with police, many demonstrators carrying red cards – in a wry reference to international soccer – to demand the vote, and officials behind it, be thrown out.
“Since the earthquake we’ve lived under tents … that’s the reason why we don’t want Jude Celestin. Jude Celestin can’t win the election because people didn’t vote for him,” said Geatrude Louis, a 49-year-old mother of four washing clothes in a post-quake homeless encampment. Similar communities are now home to more than 1 million people around the capital.
Conversations with about a dozen other Haitians from a variety of walks of life dealt with their votes, no-votes or having been turned away from polling places despite owning a voter ID card.
Some saw Celestin as the continuation of failed policies dating back to 1995, when Preval first took power with support from his mentor, now-exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide – with whom he broke in recent years.
“This government has been in power for 20 years. They don’t do anything, nothing has changed. We need someone who can bring us something new,” said Dieusel Alexander, a 32-year-old motorcycle taxi driver who voted for Martelly.
Others said that, even though they dislike the president, they did not support calls to upend the process.
Fredel Jean, a 22-year-old journalism student, said the election could not be thrown out after $29 million was spent to see it through – mostly from the United States and other donor countries. He supported Chavannes Jeune, a minor candidate.
“We need a secure government that can take charge of our problems. Many people say we should arrest Preval, but we can only do that by an election that replaces him with someone who can take charge,” he said.
While Martelly and Manigat supporters were in ready supply, AP journalists had to search specifically for Celestin backers.
“I’m a Haitian citizen, I can support anybody I want,” said Simeon Jean, a 49-year-old mechanic wearing a Celestin shirt. “Jude Celestin is our friend, we used to work with him … Jude Celestin can’t fix all the election problems himself.”
Others saw the troubled election as just another blow following the earthquake and a new cholera epidemic that has officially killed more than 2,000 people.
“I am hungry, I have nothing to give to my children. I have no time to lose voting,” said Chrisiane Orelis, a 46-year-old street vendor and mother of seven.