- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 16, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Thousands took to the streets in celebration yesterday after a late-night decision by Haiti’s electoral commission to declare Rene Preval the president-elect after Feb. 7 elections.

The move came amid threats of violence after Preval supporters set up nationwide road blockades and held street protests accusing authorities of cheating Mr. Preval out of victory.

“We’re happy now,” said Meritane Pierre-Louis, an unemployed 65-year-old woman who joined a large crowd of Preval supporters yesterday in front of the National Palace in the capital. “Preval is the only one who can govern the country.”

Mr. Preval, a former president and the only candidate of nearly three dozen with widespread popular support, had obtained 48.76 percent with votes counted from 90 percent of the polling stations.

Authorities reinterpreted the rules to push Mr. Preval above the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff election between the top two vote-getters.

“The decision was technically, legally and politically correct,” said Gerardo Le Chevallier, elections chief for the 9,000-member United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

Mr. Preval told the Haitian Press Agency, “We have won. Now we are going to fight for parliament.”

His vote total was nearly five times that of his nearest competitor, Leslie Manigat.

Mr. Manigat, a 75-year old historian who served under a military regime in 1988, denounced the decision as a coup d’etat and threatened to appeal.

After hours of negotiations involving government officials, diplomats and Mr. Preval, the electoral council decided to change the way in which it counted 85,000 blank ballots, about 4 percent of the total cast.

The ballots were originally counted as votes, knocking down the percentages of all the candidates — and particularly that of Mr. Preval. But the council decided to distribute them proportionally among the 33 presidential candidates according to how many votes each obtained. The shift pushed Mr. Preval’s percentage up to 51.15 percent.

Although many poor Haitians seem thrilled with Mr. Preval’s victory, his return to power has drawn outcries from Haiti’s tiny elite, who see him as a puppet of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

Charles Henri Baker, who finished third with less than 8 percent of the vote, said he was also considering appealing the results.

“I’m flabbergasted,” said Mr. Baker, a wealthy factory owner who helped lead the opposition movement against Aristide. “It’s like changing the rules of a football game in the middle of the game.”

Mr. Preval, a 63-year-old agronomist, served as president from 1996 to 2001, a period that his supporters recall as one of relative peace and social progress.

Mr. Preval says he has not spoken with Mr. Aristide for more than two years. He has dodged the question of whether he would support his former ally’s return from exile in South Africa, saying it is Mr. Aristide’s decision because an article in the constitution forbids exile.

Officials from the United Nations and Organization of American States (OAS) welcomed the decision to name Mr. Preval the unequivocal winner.

“The electoral council was in a complicated situation. There’s one candidate who has more votes than all of the 34 other candidates combined,” said OAS Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza, “The provisional electoral council had to make a decision, and they did so.”

The road blockades and protests in favor of Mr. Preval caused panic among many international observers, especially after hundreds of poor Haitians stormed the luxury Montana Hotel, the site of the electoral commission’s press center, and took a dip in the swimming pool.

Protesters had lifted road blockades on Tuesday at Mr. Preval’s urging, but the street demonstrations continued, fueled in part by the discovery of thousands of ballots and dozens of ballot boxes in a garbage dump near the slum of Cite Soleil, a stronghold for Preval and Aristide supporters.

“In a country with a history of electoral violence, where fraud is historically an essential actor in elections, these elections finished in an exemplary way,” said Juan Gabriel Valdes, a Chilean diplomat who heads the U.N. mission in Haiti.


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