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Haiti election turmoil deepens after ballots discovered in dump
South Florida Sun-Sentinel
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti's troubled elections were dealt another blow Wednesday with the discovery of dozens of ballot boxes and polling materials scattered across a landfill just outside the capital city.
The discovery seemed to back charges by front-runner René Préval that fraud and "gross errors" plagued the Feb. 7 presidential contest.
"Just look at this — this is what the rich of this country think of our votes," said Renel Duqueres, a landfill worker who said he began noticing the ballot boxes being dumped last week. "They just kept coming and coming, and we burned a lot of them. But then it just became too much."
As pigs and goats rooted through huge mounds of smoldering garbage covering dozens of acres, Haitians from nearby villages waved discarded ballots Wednesday that showed Préval's box checked as an apparent vote. But some ballots showed markings for other candidates; others had no marks at all.
"This is really quite disturbing, and it looks like it's going to mess up things quite a bit," said David Wimhurst, spokesman for the United Nations, which has backed this country's interim government with a 9,000-man military force since a 2004 rebellion ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.
With 90 percent of ballots counted, Préval leads with 48.7 percent of the vote, followed by former President Leslie Manigat with 11.8 percent. Préval needs a simple majority to avoid a runoff, and he contends that the vote was sabotaged to shrink his lead.
Michel Brunache, chief of staff for President Boniface Alexandre, said on Haitian radio Wednesday that the interim government is forming a commission with election officials and Préval's aides to review allegations of vote fraud.
Behind the scenes, U.N. diplomats continued to confer with Haitian leaders and ambassadors from the United States and other countries. Brazil, whose military leads the U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti, was pushing a plan to declare Préval the winner to avoid another nationwide rebellion.
Meanwhile, the United Nations and Haiti's election council hurled charges over custody of the ballots.
Polling places ransacked
Both Wimhurst and Brunache said that the ballots in the landfill could have come from nine polling places that were ransacked on Election Day.
Or, they said, they could be blank ballots dumped in an effort to sabotage the elections by discrediting them in the eyes of the Haitian public.
A large proportion of votes, about 4.7 percent, were blank.
Haitian electoral law recognizes a blank ballot as a citizen's right to protest by choosing none of the candidates. But with 33 candidates for the presidency representing every ideological shade, suspicion has intensified that many of the blanks were illegally inserted to reduce Préval's percentage.
Without the blanks, Préval would have exceeded 50 percent of valid votes, and avoided a runoff.
"People didn't walk miles and wait for hours in line to cast empty ballots," said one young worker at the vote-tabulation center. He declined to identify himself, saying he would lose his job for casting aspersions on the process.
Préval supporters marched through the streets chanting "Give us our president!" While they heeded Préval's appeal Tuesday to keep their protests peaceful, anger infused the marchers and spurred shopkeepers to shutter their businesses.
Préval is backed by many of the poor and illiterate still smarting from the forced departure of Aristide. They consider Aristide their champion. Aristide fled an armed rebellion two years ago and now lives in South African exile. Préval served as president between Aristide's two terms, and is considered his protégé.
Additional material from Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company