Haiti tense and expectant ahead of election results

Reuters News
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Posted: Apr 04, 2011 12:54 PM
Haiti tense and expectant ahead of election results

By Joseph Guyler Delva

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Anxious anticipation tinged with fears of violence gripped Haiti as electoral officials prepared to announce on Monday whether a popular musician or a former first lady had won a presidential election.

The official results from a March 20 presidential run-off, which are preliminary pending definitive confirmation later in April, are keenly awaited after being delayed from last week because of reported high levels of fraud.

In a contrast of styles and personalities, the presidential contest was a choice between extroverted singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, 50, a political newcomer, and experienced law professor and former senator Mirlande Manigat, who is 70.

Polls before the run-off had shown Martelly as favorite but both camps said after the vote they were confident of victory.

Blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers were out patrolling the capital Port-au-Prince and other potential flashpoints around the small Caribbean nation, one of the world's poorest which is struggling to rebuild after a crippling 2010 earthquake.

Some stores and businesses boarded up windows in anticipation of trouble and said they would send employees home early before the results.

"Steps have been taken with regard to security," Ambassador Colin Granderson, head of the Organization of American States/Caribbean Community observer mission to the Haitian elections, told Reuters.

He said Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council, which will announce the preliminary results, earlier received the envelope containing them from the vote tabulation center in Port-au-Prince, where final counting had taken place.

The United Nations and donor governments including the United States which have pledged billions of dollars of reconstruction funds to Haiti want the election to produce a stable, legitimate leadership to take charge of the recovery.

They want to avoid the rioting and fraud allegations that marred a first round of voting held on November 28 in the elections to choose a president and some fresh members of parliament.

SWIRLING RUMORS

Although both candidates, heeding earnest appeals from the international community, have restrained their supporters since the March 20 vote, many ordinary Haitians were wary that violence could follow the preliminary results announcement.

"After what I saw in December, I think everybody has a reason to fear," said Monique Geffrard, 28, a university student in Port-au-Prince. "It shouldn't be like that, because in other countries where good elections are held, you don't see these situations," she added.

In volatile Haiti, which has suffered decades of corruption and misrule, electoral violence has been commonplace.

Nevertheless, the March 20 run-off vote passed off generally peacefully.

But in a country where calm streets can become transformed in seconds into battlegrounds of protesters and flaming tires, rumors have been swirling about threats to "burn the nation" and about machetes -- the long, curved cutlasses that are a traditional weapon of Haitians -- selling out at stores.

"I think that if the results are very clear-cut, if there is a clear winner, then there won't be any disputes," Robert Fatton, Jr., a Haiti expert and professor in the University of Virginia's Department of Politics, said.

"But if the vote is very close, then I think we may have in fact the possibility of serious trouble," he added.

The international community has worked to keep the Haitian elections on track through its U.N. peacekeeping mission and electoral observers and experts from the OAS and Caricom.

Backed by diplomatic pressure from Washington, these experts persuaded Haitian authorities to revise the disputed first round results to put Martelly -- originally placed third -- in the March run-off with Manigat, at the expense of a government-backed candidate dropped due to alleged fraud.

"I think what the international community wants is basically political stability and whoever can bring that would be welcome, I think that's the bottom line," Fatton said.

He said the new president would have to deal with the pressure of the expectations of millions of Haitians who want jobs and a better life, among them hundreds of thousands of homeless quake survivors living in tent camps.

With the INITE party of outgoing President Rene Preval expected to remain strong in parliament, the new Haitian leader will also have to manage a fractious political situation.

This has been stirred up further by the separate returns from exile this year of two former presidents, both previously ousted by revolts -- left-wing populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide and former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.

(Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Laura MacInnis and Eric Walsh)