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Haitians protest shift in vote


PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti -- Haiti's presidential election crisis was shaping into a battle between protesters and polls yesterday. Front-runner Rene Preval announced "gross errors and probably gigantic fraud" in last week's voting and warned that his impoverished followers would keep demonstrating against the results.

"If they publish these results as they are, we will contest them," Preval said during a news conference here, a day after tens of thousands of his supporters paralyzed the country with flaming roadblocks and stormed a hotel to demand the interim government declare him the winner.

Preval's comments suggested there is unlikely to be any quick solution to the crisis spawned by the first presidential election since armed rebels ousted firebrand leftist President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago, pushing an already troubled Haiti toward chaos.

Meanwhile, Haiti's interim government has ordered a review of election results amid the accusations of fraud, the country's interior minister said.

Preval supporters have taken to the streets in rising numbers in recent days, accusing Haiti's electoral council of tampering with the Feb. 7 vote. Preval's showing has slipped to 48.7 percent, with more than 90 percent of ballots counted, from an early high of nearly two-thirds of the votes.

Without 50 percent plus one vote, Preval, 63, would face a runoff next month against intellectual Leslie F. Manigat, 75, who is in second place in the 33-way race with 1.8 percent.

Though he would almost certainly win, Preval is refusing a runoff. But Manigat - like Preval, a former president - won't concede defeat.

Officials from a United Nations mission that is overseeing the vote and propping up Haiti with 9,300 peacekeepers cite disorganization but no evidence of fraud.

However, Preval's camp is suspicious because up to 15 percent of ballots cast are either missing, have been declared invalid because they were improperly marked or might have been mislabeled or misfiled.

Also, the electoral council has included blank ballots representing 4.6 percent of votes in the count, narrowing Preval's lead by at least two points.

Many political analysts said a runoff would be a healthy democratic process in Haiti, a country historically convulsed by political violence.

"Preval could emerge from a second round with even greater legitimacy," said Dan Erikson, a Caribbean expert at the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington, D.C. "But if Preval is seen as being unfairly pushed into a second round, Haiti could explode."

Visiting former South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate, said in an interview that he thought Manigat should concede defeat to "avoid a Pyrrhic victory."

Under a controversial decree recently passed by the U.S.-backed interim government, a candidate's call for a recount would be considered by the same electoral council that tallied the vote. The council is widely viewed as politicized and has few backers of Preval, a one-time Aristide protege. Preval and Aristide have become estranged in recent years.

Some election experts suggested a partial recount by international monitors to restore credibility. Otherwise, said one international electoral observer here who spoke on condition of anonymity, "the election may be decided through the threat of force from people on the street."

At Preval's urging, protesters removed flaming barricades yesterday. But thousands continued to throng in Port-au-Prince and chant, "Preval for president! No second round!" So far, demonstrators have heeded Preval's call to refrain from violence.

International observers were pressing the electoral council to find certified copies of 3.5 percent of tally sheets that are missing and to discern whether an additional 5 percent being processed were mislabeled or misfiled.

Several international electoral observers said that the 4.6 percent of votes listed as blank appeared unusually high, given that there was no political movement here to cast protest ballots.

Even factoring in Haiti's 50 percent illiteracy rate, some observers wondered how 7.4 percent of ballots were voided, given that even an X across a candidate's face was to have been accepted as a vote.

Letta Tayler writes for Newsday.

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