Candidates cry fraud in Haitian electoral crisis

Vote goes ahead despite claims of fraud

The elections in Haiti were thrown into turmoil, with fears of impending violence, after the main opposition candidates for the presidency demanded the cancellations of the polls following widespread reports of fraud and intimidation leaving thousands disenfranchised.

Angry street protests began after rival hopefuls united to charge the outgoing President René Préval with attempting to engineer the anointing of his chosen successor, Jude Celestin, as the country's leader amid systematic malpractice. The dramatic development followed a day which saw victims of the cholera epidemic ferried past polling stations where people long dead exercised voting rights; batches of ballot boxes disappeared while others were stuffed with false papers. Elsewhere, gunfire punctuated the rally of a leading candidate.

To add to the near-farcical note even Mr Celestin, the supposed beneficiary of the alleged fraud, found that his name was not on the voters' list at his polling station, necessitating a proxy vote on his behalf by the country's electoral council.

The disruption accompanying the elections, the first since the devastating earthquakes which claimed more than 230,000 lives and left 1.3 million homeless, led to a stream of people, already refugees in their own country, moving out of their vast tented camps in the capital, Port-au-Prince, for what they considered to be the relative safety of the countryside.

Health officials expressed concern that any large scale move away from the cities would hamper the attempts to control the spreading cholera epidemic, which has killed around 2,000 with another 29,000 receiving treatment, and put additional strain on already overstretched medical resources.

A statement backed by all the leading candidates, other than Mr Celestin, was read out at a press conference saying "It is clear that Préval was not prepared for elections" to a crowd which chanted back "Arrest Préval" before singing the national anthem.

Many of them claimed to have been turned away from polling stations. At Cité Soleil, a ghetto of desperate poverty, there were also claims that activists for rival candidates were taking advantage of a lack of literacy among the local electorate to steal votes.

Paul Lernier, a 42-year-old mechanic, could not find his name on the register despite having the appropriate documents. "Look, I have got the papers here," he cried waving them. "But they say that this name may not be mine; it may be that of a dead person. I have other proof, but they will not accept it. Yet I have seen at least four names of people who are certainly dead. I went to the funeral of one of them.

"Now I am going to go out on the streets and demand my rights. I will do whatever is necessary."

Standing beside him, Pierre Magaine added: "This is a very poor area and there is a problem that a lot of people cannot read or write. Party officials are taking advantage of that and taking and giving them wrong directions."

At the nearby Lycée Fritz-Pierre Luis polling station, Antoine Carlos said he did not want to hide the fact that identities of the dead have turned up in the voters' register. "This is a sobering situation," he said. "It seems fraud is being used to make sure there is not an election but selection by some people."

The four leading candidates out of a field of 19 have all accused each other of buying votes and intimidation. Massive amounts have been spent by the rivals, with Jude Celestin, the successor chosen by the outgoing President René Préval – who cannot stand for a third term under the constitution – reportedly using up a war chest of close to $20m (£13m).

The opinion polls put Mr Celestin – who heads a reconstruction company which ferries the bodies of cholera victims – neck and neck with Michel Martelly, a former cross-dressing kompa jazz artiste also known as "Sweet Micky", and Mirlande Manigat, a 70-year-old Sorbonne-trained academic, and the wife of the former president Leslie Manigat, who was deposed in a 1988 military coup. On the eve of polling, Mr Martelly said an attempt had been made to assassinate him at a public meeting.

Charles Henry Baker, a millionaire industrialist, is said to be trailing behind. The lack of a clear winner in yesterday's voting would mean a run-off between the two with the highest backing in mid-January next year.

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