United Nations soldiers collected hundreds of smashed ballot boxes, tally sheets and thousands of ballots at a garbage dump outside the Haitian capital yesterday, the latest and most flagrant irregularity to undermine results of the election held more than a week ago.
René Préval, the front-runner for president, has charged that "massive fraud and gross errors" have stained the Feb. 7 election, unfairly robbing him of victory. With 90 per cent of ballots counted, he has 48.7 per cent of the vote, just short of the 50 per cent plus one vote needed to avoid a runoff in March.
Diplomats from the United States, Brazil and other countries met privately yesterday to discuss a Brazilian plan to persuade the other 32 candidates to recognize a Préval victory and avoid further social unrest, according to an adviser to Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in Brasilia.
Crowds of Préval protesters from slums such as Cité Soleil took to the streets yesterday, chanting "Look what they did with our votes," as they marched past the U.S., Canadian and French embassies, waving spoiled ballot boxes and ballot papers. Thousands of ballots, including some marked ones, were retrieved from the dump.
While it is important to resolve the crisis, it is equally important not to tarnish Mr. Préval's victory, analysts say. If his presidency is not accepted as legitimate by all Haitians, it will be undermined from the start, much as that of former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide was after the disputed Senate election in 2000. Mr. Aristide was ousted on Feb. 29, 2004, by a popular uprising of thugs and former soldiers.
"The most important thing is that Préval's victory be seen as credible. There must be a transparent result," said Robert Macguire, director of the Haiti program at Trinity College in Washington. "Haitian elections are not undermined by voters, but by things that happen after the vote. Hopefully, this will not be the case this time."
The interim government has set up an inquiry with government representatives, members from the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) and from Mr. Préval's party to investigate the allegations of vote fraud and to review tally sheets. The CEP will not announce further election results until the investigation is complete.
Yesterday, UN soldiers picked up empty, discarded ballot boxes, a vote tally sheet and several empty numbered bags used to carry blank and invalid votes; the material was strewn across a dump, eight kilometres north of the capital.
Another aspect of the election Mr. Préval has complained about is the high number of blank ballots -- 80,000 of a total of two million votes cast -- counted in the total results, which served to lower the percentage allocated to each candidate. If those blank ballots were discounted, then Mr. Préval would have a clear victory, he has said.
A former ally of Mr. Aristide, who served as president from 1996-2001, Mr. Préval has urged supporters to reject partial results, but to do so peacefully.
On Monday, protesters shut down the capital, erecting barricades of burning tires in the main streets, and marching up to the posh Montana Hotel, set high in the hills above the shantytowns, the site of the CEP media centre.
They jumped into the pool on the Montana's bougainvillea-draped patio, sat in lawn chairs and chanted Préval slogans in the lobby. Nobody was hurt, though some guests were removed by helicopter from the hotel roof.
Former South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in Haiti for a four-day visit, was in the hotel at the time and appealed for calm. The hotel has since told the CEP to relocate its media centre.
"When you see thousands of people running in the streets it looks terrible on TV, but the country is not falling apart," David Wimhurst, a UN spokesman, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "Haiti is a volatile place. It flares up and but then it goes away. We're at an impasse, but there is a lot of effort going into resolving it."
In New York, the UN Security Council urged Haitians to respect election results and refrain from violence. It also extended the Brazilian-led UN peacekeeping mission for six months.
Before the election, violence in the capital had reached epidemic proportions, with as many as six kidnappings a day and constant gunfire in slums such as Cité Soleil as armed gangs clashed with UN soldiers. A new government is seen as key to restoring order and stability to the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and to reassuring international donors and investors.
The UN provided security for the vote, and soldiers helped transport election results to a central office in the capital, but it has not been involved in tallying results.
Canada sent 160 observers to the election, and Jean-Pierre Kingsley, Canada's Chief Electoral Officer and head of the international observers, declared the election to be fair last week.
However, NDP MP Alexa McDonough expressed concern yesterday about this declaration: "I think it is incumbent upon [Mr. Kingsley]for sure to address questions that now arise in the immediate aftermath of his assertions, to the effect that there are ballots that have been found, burned, destroyed, rejected. It's a very, very worrisome situation. There's no question about it."