Haiti presidential hopefuls

“A colorful group of people are running in a complicated Haitian presidential race where the stakes are high in Sunday’s elections. Each represents a different segment of Haitian society. With observers saying the race will go to a Jan. 16 runoff, five have shown themselves to be strong competitors with the chance to emerge among the final two.”

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI – Haiti’s much-anticipated presidential election ended Sunday as broken as the buildings around the capital city, with protests flaring across the country and nearly all the major candidates calling for the results to be tossed out amid “massive fraud.”

The day’s events took a sharp turn toward chaos before the polls closed, when 12 of the 19 candidates on Sunday’s ballot appeared together at a raucous afternoon news conference to accuse the government of President Rene Preval of trying to steal the election and install his chosen candidate, Jude Celestin.

“We are asking the men and women of Haiti to organize peacefully against the Preval government,” their statement read. “We are asking everyone to mobilize.”

The candidates said they would meet Monday to discuss their next move.

Sunday’s fraud allegations sent U.S. officials, foreign observers and humanitarian organizations scrambling to salvage the election process, which had been billed as a critical step toward installing a legitimate government that could oversee the earthquake-devastated country’s reconstruction and manage billions in still-undelivered foreign aid.

Foreign governments and international groups have pledged about $5 billion in additional aid since the Jan. 12 earthquake. They are waiting to see whether Haiti will have a legitimate government capable of administering those funds and rebuilding the country. More than a million people are living in tent camps, and a cholera epidemic has killed more than 1,500 and sickened about 25,000

 But after a day of widespread confusion, frustration and boisterous political drama, Haiti’s attempt at a unifying political process appeared hopelessly flawed.

“There are high-level discussions with all partners going on about what has happened and what will happen,” said Vicenzo Pugliese, a spokesman for the United Nation mission. “Let’s see what the outcome of the dialogue is.”

Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) said the elections went “well” at most of the country’s more than 11,000 polling stations but acknowledged “some problems,” according to Reuters.

“The CEP is comfortable with the vote,” council President Gaillot Dorsainvil said.

By sundown, crowds of young people were marching through downtown amid the sprawling tent camps and ruins as edgy U.N. soldiers in armored vehicles circled nearby.

Supporters of musician-turned-presidential candidate Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly beat drums and danced and chanted that they’d been paid to vote for Celestin but picked Martelly. Earlier, in nearby Petionville, singer Wyclef Jean joined in another Martelly rally. Jean had been ruled ineligible to run himself.

U.S. Embassy officials declined to comment on the day’s events but said they were monitoring the situation. The Organization of American States, which has more than 100 observers at the polls, did not return calls for comment or address the fraud allegations.

Tensions began building at polling stations soon after opening as would-be voters found their names missing from registration lists.

At a makeshift school a few blocks from the ruins of the presidential palace, eager voters stepped over earthquake rubble to search the government rolls for their names. The body of a woman – apparently killed by cholera – lay outside on the sidewalk as a group of Brazilian U.N. soldiers wearing dark glasses and armed with shotguns stood by.

“I’m an old lady. I have the right to vote,” said Loucillia Marcellus, 59, carrying only her national ID card as she stood outside the polls wearing plastic sandals and a faded floral-pattern dress. “They said my name is not on the list, but this is where I voted last time.

“What can I do?” said Marcellus. “I’m going home. It’s in God’s hands now.”

For all the confusion at the polls, turnout appeared relatively light. Dozens milled about voting precincts, but few dropped ballots into the clear plastic boxes that were closely watched by election workers and international monitors. There were scattered reports of violence at polls in rural Haiti and several claims that ballot boxes were dumped out.

Many who arrived at polls in the capital said they had spent the morning in a futile quest to find a place that would give them a ballot. On the grounds of a school where hundreds of children were crushed in the January quake, a group of young men wearing dreadlocks began shouting when turned away. “It’s a fraud!” they yelled. “If you don’t let us vote, there’s going to be trouble!”

Charlemagne Merlette, 25, waved his hands wildly and launched into a tirade against the outgoing Preval government. “They don’t care about young people,” he shouted. “We want our lives to change!”

Many were ineligible for the vote because they were unable to get their national ID cards, many of which were lost in the quake and the disorder that followed. Others stuck in tent camps or discouraged by the cholera epidemic seemed indifferent to the vote.

Even before the fraud allegations, tallies of the vote weren’t expected for at least a week, with a runoff scheduled for Jan. 16 if no candidate receives 50 percent of the vote. But with most candidates denouncing the election as a sham, it’s unclear whether those dates will hold and what result, if any, the process will bring.

“I want the people under the tents to have houses and jobs,” said Gosaphat Lexi, 24, who went to five different polling stations Sunday before finally giving up. He was told he wasn’t registered anywhere. “Where is my name? Why don’t they have my name?”