- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 8, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Observers complained about minor voting irregularities yesterday as Haitians awaited the results of Tuesday’s presidential election, which many hope could help end the country’s slide into violent political conflict.

A spokesman for former President Rene Preval, the apparent front-runner, said he had a substantial lead, but those claims could not be verified.

In spite of the various problems at the polls, international monitors praised the relative lack of violence compared with past elections and declared the vote a success.

“It’s possible that these are the best elections in Haiti’s history,” said Gerardo Le Chevallier, head of the elections for the United Nations’ peacekeeping mission in Haiti.

Mr. Le Chevallier expected half of the ballots to be counted by last night, but the final results were not to be announced until tomorrow at the earliest. Jacques Bernard, director-general of the Provisional Electoral Council, said the release of preliminary tallies would begin today.

Organization of American States Secretary-General Jose Miguel Insulza estimated that two-thirds of registered voters cast ballots, while Juan Gabriel Valdes, chief of the U.N. mission in Haiti, put turnout at more than 60 percent.

Some observers were critical of the voting process.

Close to Cite Soleil, a vast neighborhood where armed groups frequently clash with U.N. peacekeepers, thousands of voters waited at polling stations that opened more than three hours late.

Spontaneous demonstrations erupted as angry voters denounced the electoral council’s decision to remove polling stations from Cite Soleil as a ploy to disenfranchise its poor residents. The area strongly supports Mr. Preval, who dominated pre-election polls.

In other areas, some voters could not find their names on the lists at packed voting centers.

Vincent de Herdt, who is leading an observation mission by IFES, a Washington-based pro-democracy group funded partly by the U.S. Agency for International Development, said that 95 percent of the polling stations IFES monitored opened late.

“It’s difficult to know just how many people were turned away or discouraged from voting. But I think at the end of the day most people could vote,” he said. “The counting has been better organized than the voting.”

Mr. Insulza said fraud was unlikely.

“The elections were perfectly clean, and the votes are going to be counted well,” he said. “There is no way the results can be altered here.”

Mr. Preval would need more than 50 percent of the vote to forgo a second round with his closest competitor. His immediate rivals are Charles Henri Baker, 50, a wealthy garment factory owner, and Leslie Manigat, 75, who was president for five months in 1988 until the army ousted him.

A 63-year-old agronomist, Mr. Preval is hotly opposed by business leaders, who consider him a puppet of the only politician they hate more: former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.

But he has strong support among the poor, who see him as an efficient and honest administrator.

“Everybody in my neighborhood voted for Preval,” said Roland Solange, an artisan who sells wooden handicrafts outside the luxurious Hotel Montana, which is serving as election headquarters. “He’s the only one to vote for.”

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