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Haitians protest shrinking lead

Suspicions mount that results are being rigged to force the presidential front-runner to a runoff. One protester is killed.

Published February 14, 2006

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Port-au-Prince, Haiti's capital, on Monday, erecting barricades and burning tires after allegations of fraud in last week's crucial presidential elections.

Supporters of the front-runner, former President Rene Preval, cried foul after partial results saw his lead steadily shrink over the last three days. A demonstration turned violent and one Preval supporter was killed and several others were wounded in a shooting north of the city.

With 90 percent of the votes officially tallied, Preval's share had dropped to 48.7 percent, just shy of the majority required to avoid a second round. Earlier in the count, Preval seemed to be cruising to victory with 61 percent.

"We have questions about the electoral process," Preval told reporters after meeting with the top U.N. official in Haiti and ambassadors from the United States, France, Canada and Brazil. "We want to see how we can save the process."

Preval, who was flown from his home in northern Haiti to the capital aboard a U.N. helicopter, also planned to meet with the interim prime minister and president.

Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue appealed for calm in a nationally broadcast address. "People, don't stay in the streets," he said. "I'm asking you to go home. ... The transitional government is not stealing your vote."

Election observers have criticized the slow tally of votes by Haiti's nine-member Provisional Electoral Council. Two of the electoral council members have questioned vote-counting procedures, saying they lacked transparency. But the head of the council, Jacques Bernard, denied this.

Haiti has been without an elected government for the last two years after the ouster of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in a popular armed rebellion.

Observers fear that widespread violence could still break out if Preval is denied a first-round victory, especially given his wide margin over the rest of the 33-candidate field. Running in second place was another former president, Leslie Manigat, who had 11.8 percent, less than the number of ballots election officials say were spoiled or blank.

Suspicion Monday focused on the high number of invalidated votes (147,000, or 8 percent of the votes counted so far), raising comparisons to the "hanging chads" debate in Florida during the November 2000 presidential election.

The Preval campaign alleges electoral council members improperly threw out results from heavily pro-Preval polling stations on bureaucratic technicalities. These could involve missing or incorrectly placed signatures of local polling station officials on the tally sheets delivered to the national vote tabulation center, according to observers.

The top U.N. electoral adviser, Gerard Le Chevallier, said the delays were not due to fraud.

A portion of the tally sheets from 254 of the 9,208 polling stations was destroyed when political parties ransacked nine provincial voting centers in an attempt to skew the vote, he said. Poll workers from another 504 stations failed to include in their tallies the secret codes that allow clerks to enter the results from that polling station into the computer.

Many of the polling stations affected took in the ballots from poor neighborhoods like the Cite Soleil slum, where Preval has overwhelming support, Le Chevallier said.

Preval, a 63-year-old agronomist, is widely supported by Haiti's poor masses. But Preval's past allegiance to Aristide is a source of deep mistrust by his political rivals, as well as conservative members of Haiti's wealthy business elite.

After an impressively high turnout last week - 63 percent of 3.5-million registered voters - Preval led the vote count for several days. By the weekend he had dropped just under 50 percent. Electoral officials had promised to announce the final result by Saturday night. They missed that deadline and patience ran out when the electoral council posted new figures on its Web site before dawn Monday showing Preval's support dropping further.

Within hours the barricades went up.

"We are going to put 1-million people in the streets in the coming hours," said John Joel Joseph, a hard-line Preval activist in the Port-au-Prince slums. "The people won't take this," he added, referring to the disputed vote count.

Traffic was paralyzed throughout the city, schools shut down and the United Nations told its employees to stay home as demonstrators piled wrecked cars and tree branches in the capital's streets.

Protesters chanting "Preval is president!" smashed through the gates of the Montana Hotel, where election officials have held daily briefings for journalists. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel Peace Prize winner from South Africa, appeared at his hotel window, urging calm.

The mood relaxed and some protesters jumped in the swimming pool.

Elsewhere the mood was tense. In the middle-class Tabarre neighborhood, dozens of witnesses said Jordanian U.N. peacekeepers opened fire on protesters, killing at least one man and wounding four. But U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said peacekeepers fired warning shots into the air without injuring anyone.

The Bush administration urged Haitians to refrain from violence and to respect the results of the election.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said that once results are announced, all parties should "come together and work together" for the betterment of the country.

If the election is forced into a second round, scheduled for March 19, Preval could face a tougher challenge. Nine of the losing candidates signed a pre-election pact agreeing to back the second-place finisher. Even so, Preval is more than likely to pick up the votes he needs to take victory.

One candidate, Chavannes Jeune, running fourth with 5.3 percent of the vote, called on other candidates to step aside for the good of the country.

--Information from Times wires and the Miami Herald was used in this report.

[Last modified February 14, 2006, 02:45:31]

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