Haiti Officials Scrap Blank Ballots, to Declare Preval Winner of Election
Under pressure to resolve accusations of fraud, Haitian election officials said early today that they have agreed to set aside tens of thousands of suspect ballots and declare presidential front-runner Rene Preval the winner.
The compromise drafted by the Provisional Electoral Council with Preval’s campaign and Haiti’s interim government was announced over Radio Tropic FM and was expected to end days of angry protests and accusations of fraud in tabulating results of the Feb. 7 election.
Preval’s supporters rampaged through the streets of this debris-strewn capital Monday and Tuesday, protesting his declining vote share as counting neared an end and the number of disqualified, blank and missing ballots rose to keep Preval’s total just below the necessary 50% plus one for a first-round victory.
On Wednesday, U.N. peacekeepers recovered thousands of marked ballots and other election materials from a landfill north of the capital, raising the ire of Preval supporters and fears of another outbreak of violence.
Discovery of the crumpled ballots and smashed plastic boxes, on top of previous reports that 85,000 votes were cast without a choice for president and an additional 125,000 were invalidated, prompted authorities to order an investigation.
With Preval the uncontested leader of the 33-candidate pack, holding 48.76% of the 2.2 million votes cast with 90% counted, his backers had cried foul and refused to submit to a March 19 runoff.
The six-member investigative commission looking into the reported irregularities decided late Wednesday to remove the 85,000 blank ballots from the total, which allows Preval’s share to clear the 50% hurdle, election council chief Max Mathurin told the radio station and other media.
Haitian electoral law recognizes a blank ballot as a citizen’s right to protest by choosing none of the candidates. But with 33 candidates for the presidency representing every ideological shade, suspicion has intensified that many of the blanks were illegally inserted to reduce Preval’s percentage. Without the blanks, Preval would have exceeded 50% of valid votes and avoided a runoff.
“People didn’t walk miles and wait for hours in line to cast empty ballots,” said one young worker at the now-idle vote tabulation center. He declined to identify himself, saying he would lose his job.
Word of the compromise came too late for public reaction but it was expected to ignite jubilation across this desperately poor and politically troubled country of 8.5 million.
Even before a formal announcement of final results was made, Preval’s campaign team was celebrating into the wee hours after being informed of the compromise, said Liszt Quitel, an advisor and veteran of Preval’s Cabinet during his first presidential term, 1996 to 2001.
Haitians had been outraged by the discovery in the landfill.
“We are shocked by this incident,” said Jean Chavannes Jeune, another presidential contender. “It reinforces my conviction that the results are being manipulated.”
Preval supporters marched through the streets chanting, “Give us our president!” Although they heeded Preval’s appeal on Tuesday to keep their protests peaceful, anger infused the marchers and spurred shopkeepers to shutter their businesses.
“They threw away our ballots! They dumped them and burned them to get rid of them!” cried Kenny Paul, 20. “We voted for Preval, and all we want is for them to give us our president.”
Preval is backed by many of the poor and illiterate still smarting from the forced departure of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
A former priest and fiery champion of liberation theology who threatened Haiti’s small clique of wealthy businesspeople, Aristide fled an armed rebellion two years ago and now lives in South African exile. Preval served as president between Aristide’s two terms and is considered his protege.
On Wednesday, a harried U.N. official estimated that about 3% of the ballots cast seemed to have gone missing.
“The tragedy here is that we had a relatively clean election but it could still be ruined,” he said, suggesting that the discarded ballots might have been dumped by those who didn’t like an apparent Preval victory outcome and wanted to discredit the process.
David Wimhurst, spokesman for the U.N. peacekeeping mission charged with providing security for the election, noted that isolated incidents left nine polling places ransacked, possibly accounting for the dumped election materials.
All materials handed over to the U.N. mission “are under lock and key and armed guard,” Wimhurst said.
Interim President Boniface Alexandre’s office announced a formal probe of the discrepancies and said release of final vote tallies would be delayed.
“There have been some difficulties, but we are very optimistic about a solution soon that will reflect the will of the people,” said Interior Minister Paul Magloire, just hours before the reported compromise.
The center hasn’t posted new figures since early Monday, when it reported that Preval had slipped below 50%.
The compromise allows Haiti to avoid a costly and volatile runoff with distant second-place contender Leslie Manigat.