Chaos as Haiti Considers Possible Runoff Election

Violence erupts in Haiti as ballot returns show that presidential election front-runner Rene Preval slipped below the 50 percent of votes needed for an outright victory. That may pave the way to a runoff vote next month. Thousands take to the streets, claiming that Preval is the winner and that results are being manipulated.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. Violence erupted in Haiti's capital today. At least one person was killed as gunfire echoed through Port-au-Prince. Burning tires and roadblocks paralyzed the city. Tens of thousands of supporters of Presidential Candidate Renee Preval turned out to protest last week's election. They say results, which are still being tabulated, are being manipulated. Amelia Shaw has the story.

AMELIA SHAW: Helicopters circled over the capital while thousands of people took to the streets demanding election officials name front-runner candidate Renee Preval as president. Protestors wearing t-shirts and carrying posters with Preval's face dragged carcasses of cars into the road, and set tires ablaze, blocking all the major roads in the city.

(SOUNDBITE OF PEOPLE CHANTING)

SHAW: By 8:30 this morning, several hundred people had set up a roadblock in the slightly upscale neighborhood of Petionville. Local resident Alex Shermez(ph) says the election workers are trying to steal the election from Preval.

ALEX SHERMEZ: (Speaking Through Translator) They don't want him to take power but we are here to stop that. We know Preval is the winner. We won't take fraud anymore.

SHAW: Witnesses say that UN troops opened fire on a crowd, but the UN denies that. One person was killed during the day's violence and several were reportedly injured. By the early afternoon, streets were strewn with trash and rubble. Several hundred protesters stormed the hotel where the vote count is taking place and hotel guests were evacuated by helicopter.

Many city residents who voted for Preval say they are angry because they suspect that election officials in the international community are trying to prevent Preval from becoming president. Marie Jupair Louis(ph) was among them.

MARIE JUPAIR LOUIS: (Speaking Through Translator) This is fraud. We voted for him. It's Preval we want. We don't want a second vote.

SHAW: Preval was president in Haiti from 1996 to 2001. He is widely popular among Haiti's urban poor and is seen as a close ally of exiled President Jon Bertrand Aristide. After last Tuesday's vote, partial results showed that Preval was in the lead for president. But by the weekend, with over 90 percent of the ballots counted, Preval's lead slipped to 49 percent to avoid a runoff with second place candidate Leslie Manigat, Preval needs a simple majority of 50 percent of the vote.

Suspicions that officials are tampering with election results have spread among politicians as well. On Saturday, Preval along with two electoral officials, told the press they want to launch an investigation for alleged voter fraud. But David Wimhurst, chief public information officer with the UN Peacekeeping Mission known as MINUSTA says that these allegations are not only unfounded but irresponsible.

DAVID WINHURST: I think they're stirring up trouble because people are making gratuitous claims that are unfounded. And of course the voters who voted for the number one candidate, you know, are being agitated and stirred up. They're not, you know, they've been organized to go on these demonstrations and put up these roadblocks. And it's now causing chaos in the cities. It's preventing MINUSTA from doing its work and the, and, and, you know, the electoral machine from operating properly.

SHAW: International election observers have praised the high turnout for last Tuesday's vote, in which nearly 2 million Haitians cast their ballot. While they criticized the late opening of the polls, they have not reported any voting irregularities. Wimhurst says for politicians who suspect fraud, talking to the press won't do anything to help improve the increasingly fragile security situation in the capital.

WIMHURST: But, you know, responsible politicians will insure that any, any allegations of tampering or voter manipulation or fraud or anything like that, must be made through the proper authorities. You can't just sort of denounce this in the media and expect an investigation to take place. It doesn't happen like that.

SHAW: Wimhurst said final election results are expected by tomorrow. The election was the first since Aristide fled the country in 2004 following a violent uprising. For NPR News in Port-au-Prince, I'm Amelia Shaw.

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