After Chaotic Start in Haiti, Election Lurches Forward

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Thousands of Haitians from Cite Soleil protest, angry that they are unable to vote. (Ron Haviv)

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By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb. 7 -- Haiti's first election since the violent ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide two years ago unfurled chaotically Tuesday but turned peaceful and orderly toward evening. Voters overwhelmed badly prepared polling places in some of the capital's poor neighborhoods and clashed with security forces during the morning, but U.N. tanks and troops were eventually able to restore order.

Before dawn, voters swarmed out of Cite Soleil, Bel Air and other urban slums to discover that voting stations had failed to open, election officials had no ballots, registration lists were incorrect and lines stretched for blocks. In some neighborhoods, voters trampled by surging crowds rose bloodied and bruised.

At least three people died, including a police officer in the northern town of Gros Morne who was killed by a mob after he fatally shot a man.

The turbulence subsided by late afternoon as voters who had waited for hours were herded into lines and filed into polling places. The turnabout, which may have been aided by an afternoon decision to keep polling places open until everyone had voted, relieved election officials and international observers who feared the situation could be edging toward anarchy.

"It looks like it's going to work, even with all the glitches and the raggedness and the complications," Tim Carney, the top U.S. diplomat in Haiti, said late Tuesday. "The Haitian people scored a victory. They went out with a combination of patience and persistence to vote."

Official results of the presidential election are not expected for two to three days, a pace still considered quick in this nation, where some ballots were delivered to remote areas by donkey.

Rene Preval, a former president and Aristide protege, emerged as a heavy favorite in the weeks before the election. But it was unclear Tuesday whether he would collect the majority required to avert a March 19 runoff. Preval's main challengers, in a field of more than 30 candidates, appeared to be Leslie Manigat, another former president, and Charles Henri Baker, a businessman favored by wealthy Haitians.

Preval voted in his home town of Marmelade in northern Haiti. He served as Aristide's prime minister in the early 1990s, went into exile with him when Aristide was overthrown in a military coup, and then returned when U.S. military forces restored Aristide to power in 1994. Preval later served as president from 1996 to 2001, then retired to his country home.

"We are a poor country and we will not be able to do everything right away," Preval, 63, told the Associated Press on Tuesday. "But we are determined to do our best and raise the standard of living for the people of Haiti."

Preval's most fervent base of support is in Cite Soleil, a large slum in Port-au-Prince controlled by violent gangs that have waged machine-gun battles with U.N. peacekeepers. He is popular there because of his association with Aristide and because he built schools and roads and improved social services.

Voters in Cite Soleil accused election officials of trying to stop the poor from casting ballots after they decided it was unsafe to place polling stations inside the sprawling slum. But thousands of voters jammed the roads leading from the slum Tuesday morning, cramming into the brutally hot, covered parking lot of a housing development built by Aristide after he was reelected president in 2000.

Just steps away from the piece of cardboard that served as voting booth 00004, Jesula Juste's eyes reddened as the crowd jostled her. She arrived at 4 a.m. but was still waiting to vote at 11:30 a.m. No one around her had voted either. Police said they could not control the crowd, and election supervisors had not yet brought the ballots.


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