Election Chaos in Haiti as Candidates Cry Foul
PORT-AU-PRINCE - Haiti's top election authorities counted votes Monday after they upheld the validity of Sunday's balloting following a chaotic day that saw two deaths and widespread complaints of electoral fraud.
The UN mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) late Sunday issued a statement expressing its and the international community's "deep concern at the numerous incidents that marred the elections."
In the grip of a cholera epidemic that has claimed 1,650 lives, Haitians are choosing a successor to President Rene Preval, searching for someone to lead a nation shattered by a January earthquake that killed 250,000 people.
Despite street protests and general clamor for the vote's cancellation, the Provisional Election Council (CEP) late Sunday validated the election in all but 56 of the country's 1,500 polling stations, with CEP president Gaillot Dorsainvil calling the vote "successful."
Fears that fraud could mar the elections were realized even before polls closed at 2100 GMT -- with 12 out of 18 presidential contenders denouncing a "conspiracy" between Preval's government and the electoral commission.
The dissenters, including poll favorite and former first lady Mirlande Manigat, accused the alleged conspirators of seeking "to steer the elections to benefit the candidate of the party in power."
Several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince to protest the alleged vote-rigging.
"You can't steal the popular vote," Haitian-born hip hop artist Wyclef Jean, who was ruled ineligible to run, told AFP at the head of one demonstration.
There was no immediate response to the allegations from CEP and no early verdict from independent election monitors from the Caribbean regional bloc CARICOM.
Dozens of UN peacekeepers were dispatched to the CEP's headquarters to reinforce security.
At least two people were killed by gunfire when rival party followers clashed in southern Aquin town, and several other people were injured across the country, a police spokesman in Port-au-Prince told AFP on condition of anonymity.
MINUSTAH, in its late-night statement, said it was "urging" Haitians and political candidates "to remain calm," noting the possible "dramatic consequences" of a deteriorating security situation.
Opinion polls gave the Sorbonne-educated Manigat, 70, a clear lead from Jude Celestin, the ruling party candidate and hand-picked protege of Preval who lives with the president's daughter.
Manigat, who is vying to become Haiti's first female leader, did not flesh out the allegations but had previously accused Celestin's ruling INITE (Unity) party of hoarding 500,000 fake ballots.
The polls were also dogged by poor organization. Hundreds of thousands of earthquake survivors were without the necessary ID cards and others had the right papers but didn't know where to vote.
Voting had to be scrapped in two northern towns after armed gangs fired volleys of gunshots into the air and ransacked half a dozen polling stations with machetes.
In the Tabarre district of Port-au-Prince, about 30 people went on a rampage at a main voting station after finding their names were not on a list of those registered to vote. Facts: Haiti's wide-open presidential field
In northern Desdunes, a column of UN peacekeepers was dispatched to keep the peace after several shooting incidents broke out among the locals, said town Mayor Wesner Archelus.
Authorities had banned motorbike traffic and alcohol sales on election day, while an international force of 3,200 UN police reinforced the 9,000 Haitian personnel seeking to keep the peace.
Campaigning had already been marred by deadly political clashes, alleged assassination attempts against leading candidates and anti-UN riots over the growing cholera outbreak.
Celestin, who was plucked from obscurity by Preval to lead road-clearing and rebuilding efforts after the earthquake, has struggled to shake off the image of being too close to the unpopular president.
His main challenge has come from Manigat, an academic and longtime opposition leader who is no stranger to the ruined presidential palace as she was first lady for a few months in 1988 before her husband Leslie Manigat was ousted from office in a military coup.
No candidate is expected to pass the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory and two of the front-runners will probably make it through to a January 16 run-off.
Whoever wins must set about rebuilding a nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake.
More than one million people displaced by the quake live in squalid tent cities that cling to the vertiginous slopes of the capital -- some 80 percent of the population live below the poverty line.
More than 4.7 million Haitians are eligible to vote in the elections, which will also see 11 of the country's 30 senators and all 99 parliamentary deputies chosen.