Haiti on edge after disputed poll results

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Angry protests Wednesday greeted the announcement in Haiti that President Rene Preval's handpicked protege had made it through to a presidential run-off by fewer than 7,000 votes.

PORT-AU-PRINCE (AFP) – Angry protests Wednesday greeted the announcement in Haiti that President Rene Preval's handpicked protege had made it through to a presidential run-off by fewer than 7,000 votes.

Jude Celestin defied pre-election opinion polls and unofficial estimates from election monitors to finish second in the November 28 polls behind former first lady Mirlande Manigat, electoral officials said.

His narrow victory over third-placed Michel Martelly, a popular entertainer, fueled suspicions of vote-rigging in the Caribbean nation, which has a troubled history of dictatorships and political upheaval.

Demonstrations erupted in several cities after the results were announced late Tuesday, as thousands of protesters took to the streets to vent their anger at what they see as a conspiracy to keep the ruling party in power.

Port-au-Prince was a tinderbox as gunshots echoed through the capital and barricades of tires burnt through the night.

The US embassy issued a statement expressing its concern at the "inconsistent" results, pleading for calm and promising to help review any irregularities.

"The 2010 elections represent a critical test of whether the Haitian people will determine their destiny through their vote," it said.

"As Haiti enters the period of electoral contestation, it is essential that all political actors remain calm and encourage their supporters to do the same."

Celestin's success was "inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council (CNO)... election-day observations by official US observers... and vote counts observed around the country by numerous domestic and international observers," the US statement added.

The CNO, which is funded by the European Union and had more than 5,500 observers at 1,600 voting centers nationwide, estimated on Monday that Celestin was trailing a clear third behind Martelly.

Political turmoil in Haiti could compound an already difficult situation stemming from a devastating earthquake in January that killed 250,000 people and a cholera epidemic that since last month has killed at least 2,120.

Manigat was credited with 31 percent of the vote, Celestin with 22 percent and Martelly with 21.84 percent.

As neither Manigat or Celestin achieved the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory, a second round run-off between the two will now be held on January 16. Martelly has until December 20 to appeal through the courts.

Twelve of the 18 presidential contenders rejected the elections even before the polls closed eight days ago, but Manigat and Martelly later reversed their calls for the elections to be scrapped.

An unexpected admission from the ruling INITE (UNITY) party last week that Celestin might lose had raised hopes the dysfunctional, failing nation might experience a political watershed and manage a peaceful transition of power.

That now appears unlikely as Martelly and his supporters are likely to contest the results and thousands ae expected to take to the streets in anger at the Preval government.

A US diplomatic cable dated June 2009 disclosed last week by the WikiLeaks website said Preval tried to "orchestrate" the political transition, fearing he may be forced into exile when he leaves office early next year.

The election campaign was marred by deadly political clashes, alleged assassination attempts and ugly riots in northern Haiti targeting UN peacekeepers accused of bringing in cholera.

Although election day was chaotic -- polling stations were trashed by mobs and many quake survivors had no identification papers -- international monitors said the irregularities should not invalidate the polls.

Celestin, 48, had the full use of the INITE party machinery at his disposal for the campaign and his face beamed down from every corner of Port-au-Prince on election posters.

But opinion polls suggested he was not so popular on the street, where Preval, who rose to power as a champion of the poor, has been blamed for a slow response to the quake and the failure to tackle the roots of poverty.

Poll favorite Manigat, a longtime opposition leader, is no stranger to the presidential palace, where she served as first lady for a few months in 1988 until her husband Leslie Manigat was ousted from office in a military coup.

Whoever wins the run-off faces the daunting task of rebuilding a traumatized nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake.

Other news