PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI, JAN. 17 -- Haiti's streets were quiet and its polling places chaotic today as a high percentage of voters boycotted a national election amid charges that it was rigged by the Army-led government to maintain military control through a figurehead president.
With tight Army security, especially in Port-au-Prince, election day passed without the violence by right-wing gunmen that scuttled an independently run election in November and left more than 80 persons reported dead or missing.
The boycott -- and widespread voting irregularities observed by Haitian and foreign journalists -- affirmed the suspicions of many Haitians that the election was illegitimate. The relatively few Haitians who did vote were apparently motivated by a desire to have some form of permanent civilian government to replace the transitional military-led ruling council that was installed after dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled into exile two years ago.
As far as could be determined by foreign and Haitian journalists, safeguards against electoral cheating were generally disregarded. Election board spokesman Greard Bretous admitted tonight that there may have been "disorganization," but denied that electoral officials had failed to comply with regulations.
There was no evidence that authorities in towns and cities had forced people to vote. Electoral candidates alleged that there had been coercion in rural areas, but this could not immediately be confirmed.
Senior election officials said tonight that as many as 2 million voters may have turned out and that preliminary results would be available by Monday. A top official estimated the total electorate at more than 3 million voters.
Western journalists who visited a total of about 40 polling stations in 14 communities reported general confusion over voting procedures and frequent cases of vote fraud.
In almost every case, voters' identifications were not checked, and about 90 percent of ballot boxes seen by the journalists were unsealed. According to these observers, election officials usually inspected voters' ballots as they were cast, and numerous children were allowed to vote.
The U.S. Embassy spokesman here, Jeffrey Lite, said turnout by midday appeared low, but declined comment on irregularities. Haitians are watching closely the American -- as well as French, Canadian and Caribbean -- reactions to the election.
Haiti's streets were still as the Army threw up roadblocks, and many Haitians stayed home in a boycott supported by political centrists and leftists and Haiti's churches.
In the southern city of Jacmel, a regional Information Ministry official, Claudel Francois, told western reporters that there were fewer voters this morning than in the early hours of the Nov. 29 election. That poll was aborted after security forces stood by and allowed gunmen, widely believed to owe allegiance to former associates of Duvalier, to attack polling places in Port-au-Prince and other towns.
In Cabaret, a small town north of here, a middle-aged farmer, Bien-aime Colbert, explained why she was voting. "We need a president," she said, "a great man who will come to change the country."
The desire for a political leader who would change their lives was echoed repeatedly by voters interviewed today -- even those who were not sure which candidate they had voted for.
At Cabaret's central polling station, voting began in chaos.
At 8 a.m., about 25 voters waited silently while the elderly chief electoral officer, Lucas Jean-Baptiste, tried to make sense of his official forms for conducting the vote.
Ballots were in the form of slips of paper distributed by each candidate, bearing his or her name. Outside the polling place, voters accepted the slips from representatives of the candidates of their choice and then took the ballots inside to deposit in the ballot box.
As voters pressed in on his table, Jean-Baptiste took each voter's ballots for president, senator, legislative deputy and mayor, reading each one aloud. Then Jean-Baptiste refolded the ballots and put them in an unsealed ballot box.
Confused assistants recorded the votes on tally sheets meant to be used after the poll closed and also wrote down the tallies on the voters' register, listing each voter's presidential choice beside his or her name.
Somehow, after four voters had cast their ballots, presidential candidate Leslie Manigat had been awarded nine votes.
There was similar confusion elsewhere.
At the Special Primary School in St. Marc, farther north, polling station chief Charles Dieudonne welcomed visiting journalists and showed off his poll's operation. As he did, several children walked in and voted, each declaring his or her age as 18.
At another polling site, when a youth forgot the minimum voting age and announced that he was 15, the officials recorded his age as 18 and stuck his ballots into boxes.
Officials at Dieudonne's polling station -- and another in the village of Carrefour Poy -- explained that as soon as they counted ballots tonight, they would burn them before sending the results on to regional counting centers.
Bretous said tonight that ballots were to be delivered with official tallies to regional vote-counting centers. Bretous defended the board's exclusion of journalists and observers from the vote-counting process. "After the polling places are closed, there is nothing more to observe," he said.
At Carrefour Poy, one candidate's representative lectured officials for not asking voters to show proof of identity, as required by electoral regulations. As he stormed out of the polling station, the next voter stepped forward and cast his ballots -- without being asked to show identification documents.
Similar irregularities were witnessed by American journalists in Leogane, south of Port-au-Prince, where Julien Leandre, the president of the Communal Electoral Bureau, explained that the problems were caused by election officials "because they don't understand" how to run the vote.
Vote-buying also was witnessed. Reporters in Port-au-Prince saw voters at the city hall waving 5 gourde ($1) notes that they said they had been paid to vote for Manigat. A Manigat campaign worker in Cap Haitien, Serge Mofistan, explained to an American journalist that he gave Manigat slips to illiterate voters who had requested ballots for other candidates, but could not read them to know the difference.
The presidency is being contested only among rightist candidates after moderates and leftists pulled out in protest at cancellation of the November vote.
Candidates Gregoire Eugene and Alphonse Lahens, both conservative lawyers, alleged today that Army officers -- notably in the city of Gonaives and in rural areas -- had ordered local officials to ensure a heavy vote for Manigat, a former political science professor.
Manigat disputed the charge in a radio interview this evening.
But Haitian political observers said such interventions would be easy in rural areas, where Army and police officials wield great authority over local administrators and over people's lives.