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Riots Follow Contentious Election in Haiti

February 14, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Demonstrators took to the streets of Port-au-Prince today protesting the vote count in last week’s presidential election.

Incomplete results show the leading candidate, Rene Preval getting just under 49 percent of the vote. That was significantly ahead of the runner up, Leslie Manigat but not enough to avoid a run-off next March. Last week initial returns showed Preval winning an outright majority.

The updated count sparked violent demonstrations yesterday in the capital as angry protesters got word of the results. Preval’s supporters charged fraud. They set tires ablaze, erected barricades in the street and stormed hotels. Witnesses reported U.N. peacekeepers who have been in Haiti for a decade fired on the crowds, killing two people and wounding four.

U.N. officials at first denied those reports but later said the Jordanian peacekeepers shot into the air.

Today Preval announced he’d seen gross errors and probably gigantic fraud in the vote. He said the official count didn’t match that of international observers.

RENE PREVAL, Presidential Candidate (Translated): Haitian people have shown a lot of enthusiasm. The provincial electoral council is taking too long to announce the results. At first, they announced one percentage, then day after day they have lowered them. If we compare those results with the National Democratic Institute, the observers and the international media, it would show clearly that the winner of this election is my party on the first round.

SPENCER MICHELS: A United Nations spokesman said there is no evidence of fraud in last week’s election. Preval, the 63-year-old former prime minister, served under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was forced into exile two years ago. Preval enjoys wide support among Aristide’s backers, most of them very poor.

The elections themselves were for the most part calm. Many Haitians faced long lines in the hot sun as some polling stations were overwhelmed. That was partly because ballot boxes were removed from the most violent areas of the capital. Last Tuesday’s polling was postponed four times. It was the first election in five years.

GWEN IFILL: For more on the uncertainties in Haiti, we are joined by Alex Dupuy. He is professor of sociology and Latin American studies at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. A native of Port-au-Prince, he is the author of “Haiti in the New World Order: The Limits of the Democratic Revolution.” He is now a U.S. citizen. James Dobbins was President Clinton’s special envoy for Haiti from 1994 to 1996. He is now director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at Rand Corporation.

Mr. Dobbins, what is your reaction to what we just heard, the apparent likely perhaps, perhaps not President-elect Preval say about gigantic fraud in this election?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, it may be an element of exaggeration there. On the other hand, you know there’s a complete lack of trust in Haiti on all sides. And, unfortunately, it’s all too often well grounded — some degree of fraud possibly — massive, I think there’s probably enough international oversight so that would be caught.

On the other hand, if he’s got 49 percent of the vote, there doesn’t have to be a lot of fraud to have denied him the victory on the first ballot. And finally, there doesn’t seem to be any doubt but that he would win on the second ballot.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Dupuy, what are the consequences when is someone like Mr. Preval raised these questions? He’s a former president himself. He clearly has some bit of following there, and there has been some discontent so far about the early election results. Is he signaling people to protest?

ALEX DUPUY: Well, he said at his press conference today that he would not call off the protests by his supporters, but he did call on them to protest peacefully and to respect the law and not to violate other people’s rights in the process.

It is clear that the discontent has to do with the discrepancy between the results announced by the independent electoral council, which is monitoring the elections and in charge of tabulating the returns and announcing the results, and the projections put forth by independent observers as Mr. Dobbins just mentioned and as the report also mentioned.

And Preval himself at his press conference claimed that he had enough evidence to show that he had won in the first round. So this is where the discontent is coming from. And his supporters feel that he’s being robbed or deprived of the victory on the first round so that he would be forced then to go into a second round where, you know, all indications are that he would sweep the second round but the point is that they feel that he’s already won and should be declared president.

GWEN IFILL: How closely is Preval linked to Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Professor Dupuy, the former president who was of course driven from Haiti into exile?

ALEX DUPUY: Well, Mr. Preval was President Aristide’s prime minister when Aristide was first elected in 1990. And of course Aristide was overthrown in a coup de etat seven months later in 1991 and Preval went with him into exile.

When they returned to Haiti in 1994, Preval became president in 1996 from 1996 to 2001. And many believe that he was still being manipulated by Aristide behind the scenes — that Aristide was still running the show and Preval was presented as a rather weak president the first time around.

But since then I think he’s been trying to distance himself from Aristide. He’s in fact not run under the Lavalas banner but he formed his own party, called the Party of Hope, the Lespwa Party. And he’s also made signals that he’s not going to necessarily follow the dictates of Aristide or that Aristide will influence him in any way.

But, of course, his supporters have turned to him because they hope that he will be able to carry out some of the promises that Aristide made but never delivered. So it remains to be seen how in fact he can distance himself from Aristide if he becomes president.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Dobbins, how would you assess his connection to Aristide and, in general, what are western diplomats saying about what hangs in the balance here with this election?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think he has somewhat distanced himself from Aristide. He certainly represents the same constituency. He’s appealed -

GWEN IFILL: Who are -

JAMES DOBBINS: — to the same segment of the population, which is the poor, the dispossessed and in Haiti, poor means desperately poor. When in office, I think those in the United States government who dealt with him found him personally to be honest and accessible if rather undynamic.

Aristide was still living in the country and clearly was exercising a good deal of influence, which limited Preval’s freedom of action. That’s not going to be the case this time around. And I think it’s likely he will show more independence and perhaps will as a result prove to be more dynamic.

GWEN IFILL: We’ve had this conversation, Mr. Dobbins, over and over again about Haiti and about the future of Haiti at every political turn. Is this a political turn which could actually change the direction we’ve seen?

JAMES DOBBINS: I think it could. I mean, I think that the positive aspects of this election were first of all the turnout was much higher than anticipated, despite, you know, grave problems in registration and actually conducting the ballot; and the Haitian people deserve a lot of credit for having stood in line for hours and hours and turned out in the very large numbers.

Secondly, even though there’s some dispute about the exact vote count, this is a pretty decisive election in which Preval outnumbers his closest opponent by 40 percent of the vote. So the result is whether they go to a second round or not going to be pretty clear cut.

And finally, and this is interesting I think, you have a Republican administration here which clearly would have preferred another outcome but which is nevertheless to its credit persevered in pushing the necessity for elections even when it became clear they weren’t going to be that pleased with the outcomes.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me, what other outcome?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, I think there were other candidates who represented more liberal democrat – liberal -

GWEN IFILL: Small “l.”

JAMES DOBBINS: — small “l.” The business community people who were looking for market economy based solutions rather than the populist candidate that Preval was. That would have been more comfortable to Washington.

But I guess the point I’m make something that the administration has nevertheless supported holding these elections even when it became pretty clear they weren’t going to be entirely delighted with the outcome; and if they do embrace the result, if they do congratulate Preval and try to work with him, then this result could overcome more than a decade of partisan division here in Washington which has bedeviled all of America’s efforts to promote reconciliation in Port-au-Prince.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Dupuy, is Haiti as a nation resistant in some ways to these kinds of outside intervention – nation building, if I can use that term?

ALEX DUPUY: Well, yes and no; that is, Haiti has been occupied before by the United States. The U.S. has interfered since it became the major player in Haiti. After it occupied Haiti from 1915 to 1934. It has interfered in Haitian political affairs, and there is a sense of intrusion and interference from the outside.

At the same time it is clear also and Preval has made it clear that the United Nations peacekeeping force would have to remain in Haiti for quite some time after the elections, if he becomes president and that the U.N. would be needed to help bring about peace and stability in their country.

So at the same time that there is a resentment in the external interference in Haitian affairs, there’s also the recognition that Haiti needs the support of the international community and needs the support of the U.N. in order to probably establish peace and stability that are necessary for any sort of economic development to take place.

GWEN IFILL: Professor, you mentioned the United Nations’ involvement. Is there any resentment or chafing on the ground about the continued presence of U.N. peacekeepers?

JAMES DOBBINS: Well, there has been, particularly on the part of the Aristide — former — supporters of former President Aristide who felt that they were being unduly targeted by the LoDolce government who did try to crack down on Aristide supporters in the slums of Port-au-Prince. But at the same time, without the presence of the peacekeeping forces, the situation might have gotten worse.

So as I said before, it’s a sort of a two-way relationship. On the one hand, they would prefer not to have the presence of United Nations troops or any foreign troops on Haitian soil. On the other hand, they recognize a necessity of such presence in order for some stability to occur because the Haitian police is notoriously corrupt and repressive, and so with the U.N. presence, hopefully some better peacekeeping results can be obtained.

GWEN IFILL: Alex Dupuy, James Dobbins, thanks very much.

ALEX DUPUY: A pleasure.

JAMES DOBBINS: You’re welcome.