MIAMI (CBS4) — Nearly all the major candidates in Haiti’s presidential election called for Sunday’s election to be voided amid allegations of fraud and reports that large numbers of voters were turned away from polling stations across the quake-stricken country.
Twelve of the 19 candidates endorsed a joint statement denouncing the voting as fraudulent and calling on their supporters to show their anger with demonstrations against the government and the country’s Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP.
The statement included all of the major contenders but one: Jude Celestin, who is backed by the Unity party of President Rene Preval.
“It is clear that Preval and the CEP were not prepared for elections,” said candidate Anne Marie Josette Bijou, who read the statement to a cheering crowd that sang the national anthem and chanted “Arrest Preval!”
The CEP had earlier acknowledged problems with the voter lists but said immediately after the candidates’ news conference that the election would continue.
Even so, the united front of so many candidates could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, the first since a January earthquake destroyed much of the capital, leaving more than a million people still stranded in crowded tent encampments.
The call for protests could also spark violence, especially with tensions already high following a series of deadly clashes earlier this month between U.N. peacekeepers and demonstrators who suspected them of bringing a rapidly spreading cholera outbreak.
Thousands of people surged onto the streets of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien, the second-largest city, after polls closed. People danced in the streets, carrying posters of their candidates and chanting their names. Most of the people in both cities seemed to be celebrating presidential-candidated-turned-musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly.
Police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators near an electoral office in the Delmas section of the capital but there were no immediate reports of major violence.
Lawyer Jean-Henry Ceant, running for president on the “Love Haiti” ticket, dismissed the notion that the calls for protests could result in bloodshed. “The only one responsible for the violence is President Rene Preval,” he said.
The Haitian government had no immediate response to the criticism.
Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-American singer whose own bid for president ended with an August disqualification, joined a convoy led by two candidates — Martelly and factory owner Charles Henri-Baker — to CEP headquarters, where they hoped to meet with officials. U.N. peacekeepers and police deployed extra forces and barricades ahead of the march.
Representatives of the major international donors, including the ambassadors of the U.S., Canada, France and the European Union, met after the candidates declaration to discuss the situation, said Organization of American States Assistant Secretary-General Albert Ramdin, who is in Haiti to monitor the elections.
“We are all concerned about the possibility of violence because we don’t want to see people lose live in a process that should be democratic,” Ramdin said.
An OAS report on the elections would not be released for several weeks, he said.
Bijou told The Associated Press that she had photos and “documentary evidence” of election fraud but walked away when asked for further details.
Voters throughout the country showed up at polling stations only to find them closed hours after their scheduled opening, or to be turned away because their names were not on lists. At one station, even Celestin was turned away.
There were also sporadic reports of violence and intimidation, as well as a ballot box being stolen and its contents strewn about in the capital’s Cite Soleil slum.
It was not yet clear whether the problems were the result of orchestrated fraud or merely disorganization made worse by the Jan. 12 earthquake.
Voters and candidates said Preval, who was barred from running for re-election, was trying to sway the vote in favor of Celestin.
“Preval did this on purpose because they know we want to vote for Martelly,” said Fanes Francky, a voter turned away from his voting station in the Delmas section of the capital.
Voter rolls were filled with the dead, and many living citizens were struggling to figure out if and where they could vote.
Observers from dozens of parties crowded voting areas and furious voters were turned away from stations where poll workers could not find their names on lists.
“I don’t know if I’m going to come back later. If I come back later it might not be safe. That’s why people vote early,” said Ricardo Magloire, a Cap Haitien radio journalist whose polling station at a Catholic school was still not taking ballots after people had waited more than an hour.
At another voting place in the St. Philomene neighborhood, a woman complained that young men were taking advantage of the chaos to vote multiple times. The allegation could not be confirmed because a crowd of one candidate’s supporters swarmed around two AP journalists and forced them to leave the area, threatening a photographer.
One man was shot to death at a polling place in rural Artibonite, Radio Vision 2000 reported, though no details were available.
Ninety-six contenders were competing for 11 Senate seats and more than 800 more were seeking to fill the 99-seat lower house.
But the focus is on the presidential contest. Nineteen candidates were on the ballot, though many Haitians believed the race came down to a man who was not: Preval.
The laconic leader twice sailed into office bolstered by supporters of his former ally, ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. But in Preval’s second term, those voters branded him a traitor for not returning Aristide from exile.
Frustrations also grew among the jobless masses as Haiti’s economy continued to be one of the world’s worst. When the earthquake struck on Jan. 12 and a stunned Preval hid from sight, impatience turned to anger that has fueled anti-government protests.
As his replacement, Preval backed Celestin, the little-known head of the state-run construction company whose dump trucks carted many of the quake’s estimated 300,000 dead to mass graves. His well-funded campaign included airplanes trailing banners with his name and dropping leaflets that flutter like yellow-and-green birds over tent camps for people made homeless by the quake.
A text message sent to Haitian cell phones Saturday summed up the primary message of Celestin’s campaign: “Let’s assure stability.” His campaign workers already refer to him as “The President.”
Some opinion polls put Mirlande Manigat, 70-year-old former first lady whose husband was helped to power and then deposed by a military junta, as a more popular contender.
Martelly, known for jazzy, sarcastic dance music, had thousands of urban youths toting his pink signs and shouting to “Vote for the bald head!”
Some Aristide supporters were expected to back Ceant. Aristide’s Fanmi Lavalas party was disqualified on an unexplained technicality, sparking threats of a boycott by supporters.
The victor gets a five-year term at the helm of a disastrous economy and leadership of an increasingly angry and suffering population worn down by decades of poverty, the earthquake, a recent hurricane and now a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,600 people.
Yet there is an unprecedented opportunity: the new president will oversee the largest capital spending spree in Haiti’s history, the $10 billion pledged in foreign reconstruction aid after the quake. Very little of the money has been delivered so far, as many donor nations are waiting to see who will take over the government.
Donors also want to see if how the election goes off — and the results are deemed fair.
Preliminary results are not expected until Dec. 7, and all but the most confident supporters of individual candidates expect to see a run-off for races at all levels.
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