When Haitians burn tires in the streets, it's usually out of frustration with the establishment. But the looting, burning, and anger that collected in Port-au-Prince for over a week following Feb. 7 general elections-resulting in at least one man dead and dozens injured-was actually in support of the frontrunner, one-time president Rene Preval, a one-time ally to despised former president Jean Bertrand Aristide.
When Mr. Preval, the 63-year-old independent candidate, failed to win an out-and-out majority, he charged that "massive fraud or gross errors stain the [electoral] process." Working-class and poor Haitians took to the streets, contending that Mr. Preval was robbed of votes. They feared that a runoff election next month could lead to the kind of civil strife that convulsed the country two years ago before Mr. Aristide fled to exile in South Africa-the kind of violence that keeps UN peacekeepers on alert in the tiny island nation.
It turns out the mob was right. On Feb. 14, local Haitian reporters made a startling discovery. In a garbage dump five miles north of the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince, local television reporters and later the Associated Press found hundreds of abandoned ballot boxes, voting lists, empty bags, and still-smoldering ballots from the recent election in the remote, fly-infested garbage pile.
Of course, that's not where they should have been. Haiti's acting government has denied allegations that the Feb. 7 vote was rigged to keep Mr. Preval from winning outright and avoiding a March 19 runoff. Officials in the government had pegged Mr. Preval's tally at around 49 percent with just over 90 percent of the votes counted. But a witness who spends time picking through the dump says the ballot boxes and other voting materials were discarded there the day after the election and said someone tried to burn the evidence before a rainstorm foiled his plans.
When the television cameras arrived, they beamed pictures of voting tallies signed by poll workers from Preval-friendly precincts discarded in the rubbish. One discarded tally that held the records from a Port-au-Prince neighborhood showed 129 votes for Mr. Preval out of 202 cast-roughly 64 percent. In all, reporters found 136 tally sheets with records of possibly thousands of votes. Those pictures and other allegations of fraud stoked the passions of ardent Preval supporters whose public protests demanding redress sparked a wave of violence.
University of Virginia professor and Haiti political expert Robert Fatton Jr. told WORLD that it's hard to imagine a scenario where Mr. Preval, who served as Haiti's president from 1996 to 2001, wouldn't return to power. The former president's next closest competitor, Leslie Manigat (another former president), received just 11.8 percent of the vote in the most recent calculations. A favorite of the Haitian elite, industrialist Charles Henri Baker, who has U.S. residency to go along with U.S. political ties, finished third with 7.9 percent. In fact, the number of spoiled and blank ballots made for 9.7 percent of the 2.2 million ballots cast. "One would have to be in a different galaxy to think that Preval wouldn't win in the [runoff]," Mr. Fatton said.
Mr. Preval and his supporters, defrauded once, believed their case for election fraud was growing. Mr. Preval did not officially accuse any candidate or official of rigging the vote, but a member of the nine-person Electoral Council said his questions into potential fraud were stonewalled from within the interim government set up upon Mr. Aristide's 2004 departure.
Then, with Mr. Preval threatening a legal challenge to the vote, came a surprise announcement from the government on Feb. 16. Government and election officials reached overnight agreement to discard 85,000 blank ballots (representing 4 percent of 2.2 million votes cast). When subtracted from the total number of votes cast, they pushed Mr. Preval's victory tally to 51 percent-ending the need for a runoff and turning angry protests into jubilant celebrations.
Would Mr. Preval's return to power mean a return for Mr. Aristide? Leading up to the election, many Haitians believed a vote for Mr. Preval was like a vote for the former leader. In fact, the two men share the same constituency among the poorest urban Haitians and residents of shantytowns. But Mr. Preval, who many believe was an Aristide puppet during his first administration in the 1990s, may not be so closely tied to Mr. Aristide anymore.
Mr. Preval made waves before the election by suggesting that Mr. Aristide could return after the election. But many forgot what he said next. "He made a rather interesting comment," Mr. Fatton said. "He said Aristide should also think about what he would do. In my mind, that's an indication from Preval to Aristide that 'Sure, you can come back, but I'm not going to promise you anything.'" Furthermore, in the same interview with the BBC, Mr. Preval was asked about what he would do with the gangs that gave Mr. Aristide much of his power: "I will not control them, I will eliminate them," he said.
Ironically, those Aristide gangs may be the very ones who led the violence in support of Mr. Preval. In the week after the election, bands of Preval supporters put up roadblocks in Port-au-Prince, bringing traffic and commerce to a stop in the nation's capital. A group surrounded the administration building for the Electoral Council banging drums and calling the head of the council a "thief."
Around the city, strained police met protesters with shotguns and rifles. In the Tabarre neighborhood, a Jordanian peacekeeper shot and killed a protester, according to witnesses and Associated Press accounts. In an upscale neighborhood in Port-au-Prince, Preval loyalists overran UN peacekeepers guarding a popular hotel. Former Nobel Peace Prize laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others evacuated by helicopter.
The Haitian hi-jinks may make the United States presidential elections in 2000 look smooth, but Mr. Fatton says none of this surprises him. "We've never had a clean election in Haiti. You need a great majority to make sure that you win-to make it very clear," he said, noting Mr. Preval won 88 percent of the vote in 1995 and Mr. Aristide won more than 90 percent of the vote in 2000. "The question is now whether the people that opposed Preval are ready to accept [him]. And whether Preval is ready to open up his government to members of the opposition. If you don't have that, you're going to have polarization and in the long term that will be problematic."