Haiti vote count grinds to halt with fraud probe


15 Feb 2006 16:45:21 GMT

Source: Reuters
        
By Joseph Guyler Delva and Jim Loney

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb 15 (Reuters) - The counting of ballots in Haiti's presidential election ground to a halt on Wednesday, more than a week after the vote, as electoral authorities bowed to a demand by the leading candidate for a fraud inquiry.

The discovery of piles of charred and still smoldering ballots in a garbage dump in Port-au-Prince reinforced the claims of fraud leveled by Rene Preval, a former president opposed by the same wealthy elite who helped drive Jean-Bertrand Aristide into exile two years ago.

With 90 percent of ballots counted, Preval held an insurmountable lead at 48.7 percent, just shy of the simple majority needed to win without a runoff in March in which several of his rivals have vowed to join forces to defeat him.

Michel Brunache, chief of staff for President Boniface Alexandre, said the interim government had asked the Provisional Electoral Council not to publish final election results until a commission composed of council members and aides to Preval had reviewed Preval's allegations.

"We have people who are angry, who are ready to set the country on fire," Brunache said.

How long it would take to conduct a review of the vote count was unclear. Nor was it clear whether the review alone would prevent another explosion of street protests, as happened on Monday, when Port-au-Prince was brought to a standstill by angry Preval supporters and impromptu roadblocks.

Brazil, whose military is leading the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti, urged that Preval be declared the winner, for fear the situation would deteriorate.

"Considering the existing climate in the country, that would be the best solution," President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's chief foreign relations adviser, Marco Aurelio Garcia, told reporters in Brasilia.

He said that recognizing Preval as the winner would likely have international support.

BLANK BALLOTS

Preval, who has won the same passionate support in Haiti's teeming slums that formed the backbone of Aristide political power, said on Tuesday that only "massive fraud" had kept him from winning an outright first-round victory.

He provided no details, nor evidence, but Haiti has been rife with rumors of ballot stuffing.

A distant second to Preval, with 11.8 percent, was Leslie Manigat, another ex-president whose brief tenure in 1988 -- as has been the case all too often in Haiti's two turbulent centuries of independence -- was interrupted by a military coup.

Max Mathurin, the president of the electoral council, said he hoped the commission would rapidly resolve the controversy.

"If there's fraud, it happened at the level of the polling stations, not at our level," Mathurin told local radio.

A large proportion of votes, 4.7 percent, were "blank," showing no choice for president among the 33 candidates. But they were included in the total votes cast and therefore reduced the final percentage allocated to each candidate. Had the blanks not been included, Preval would have held more than 51 percent of the vote.

While blank votes are a common way to express a protest vote in sophisticated democracies, few in Haiti can imagine large numbers of their countrymen walking several miles (km) to polling stations and then waiting in line for up to eight hours simply to leave their ballots unmarked.

U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said it was conceivable to imagine polling station workers, who were often of the same political grouping, colluding to stuff handfuls of blank votes into the ballot boxes under their care but said there was no evidence of that.

The piles of charred ballots found on a garbage dump in the capital, meanwhile, would be investigated, election officials said.

By morning most of the suspect ballots had been carted away by souvenir hunters, journalists and Preval supporters, and there was no sign of any official investigation.

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