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Haiti's Capital Seethes At Disputed Election Results

The headquarters of Haiti's ruling party was set ablaze Wednesday as thousands of protesters took to the streets across the country over what they say are rigged presidential election results.

Furious supporters of eliminated candidates set fires and put up barricades in Port-au-Prince after officials announced that government protege Jude Celestin and former first lady Mirlande Manigat would advance to a second-round runoff in presidential elections. Protests have also broken out in Les Cayes, Cap-Haitien and other cities.

Flames were seen leaping from the roof of the Unity party headquarters, the center of Celestin's campaign. Protesters said security guards shot demonstrators as they assaulted the building, but there were no confirmed injures in the fire or demonstration. Several fire trucks were trying to control the blaze -- an unusual scene in a city with few reliable public services.

Haitian President Rene Preval on Wednesday urged the candidates to call off the protests.

"This is not how the country is supposed to work,'' he said in a live radio address. "People are suffering because of all this damage.''

The president dismissed allegations that fraud invalidated the election results and faulted the U.S. Embassy for its criticism of the vote, saying it would be up to the country's Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP, to review the results.

"If there are problems we can sit down and personally discuss it, but the American Embassy is not the CEP,'' he said.

The official preliminary results had law professor and former first lady Mirlande Manigat in first with 31.4 percent of the vote and Celestin next with 22.5. Popular carnival singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly had 21.8 percent -- trailing Celestin by about 6,800 votes.

The results, announced after hours of delays Tuesday evening, were immediately questioned at home and abroad, threatening more unrest for a country wracked by a cholera epidemic and still recovering from a devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.

Martelly supporters set up flaming barricades Tuesday near the Petionville restaurant where the tallies were announced and threw rocks at people passing nearby. Gunshots rang out.

"Protesters didn't just get into the streets; they took over the streets last night," said NPR's Jason Beaubien, reporting from Port-au-Prince. He added: "Garbage dumpsters have been kicked over in the streets, fires are smoldering. Fires burned all night. There was gunfire late into the night last night."

"It's unclear how this is going to get sorted out," Beaubien said.

Protests surged again as the sun rose over Port-au-Prince on Wednesday. The black smoke of burning barricades filled the air in areas where Martelly's support is strongest, including Petionville and Delmas. Thousands were on the streets, singing political songs and chanting, "Micky."

A group of young men, some wielding machetes and sticks, shouted that they would burn the city down if Martelly were not named the next president.

"We are protesting until they respect our rights," said Robert Junior, as he clutched a Martelly campaign poster. "If they don't want to respect our voice, we are going to turn this protest into a civil war. But everything will get destroyed."

Violent disturbances also were reported in Les Cayes, where residents said government buildings had been attacked and set on fire.

Businesses were shuttered and American Airlines canceled all of its flights in and out of the capital. Most major thoroughfares were blocked with barricades and burning tires.

Martelly's supporters allege that the Nov. 28 ballot was rigged to push the unpopular Celestin into the run-off election. Martelly has said he will not accept a spot in a run-off in which Celestin is present. His campaign called a news conference late Tuesday night but later canceled it for security reasons.

"If they don't give us Martelly and Manigat [in the second round], Haiti will be on fire," said a protester, Erick Jean. "We're still living under tents, and Celestin wastes money on election posters."

Much of the concern centered on conflicts between the announced results and those reported recently by a local election monitoring group financed by the European Union — the National Observation Council — which said that Celestin, who is backed by outgoing President Preval, would be eliminated.

"The Government of the United States is concerned by the Provisional Electoral Council's announcement of preliminary results ... that are inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council" as well as U.S. observers and vote counts monitored by domestic and international observers, the U.S. Embassy said in an e-mailed statement.

Beaubien noted that the election results are preliminary, "so the candidates have 72 hours to protest the results — we are expecting that Martelly will do that."

An appeals period runs through Dec. 10, with final results expected to be announced around Dec. 20. The run-off is scheduled for Jan. 16.

The election has been plagued by allegations of fraud. Thousands of voters were disenfranchised by confusion on the rolls and there were many reported incidents of ballot-stuffing, violence and intimidation confirmed by international observers.

Officials acknowledged the rolls were both "bloated" and "incomplete," with hundreds of thousands of earthquake dead still registered and many living voters waiting for ID cards. In the last days of counting, tabulators had to sort out clearly fraudulent tally sheets.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said the problems were worse than originally reported. But the U.N. peacekeepers and the joint Organization of American States-Caribbean Community observer mission said the problems did not invalidate the vote.

The head of the OAS-Caricom mission, Colin Granderson, told The Associated Press before the results were announced that officials could consider putting a third candidate in the runoff if the vote is nearly tied.

Martelly had said that he would not accept a spot in a run-off in which Celestin is present. His campaign called a late Tuesday night press conference but later canceled it for security reasons.

Merchants and residents had braced for rioting by supporters of the losing candidates before the results were announced, covering market stalls and jamming streets to rush home.

The protests began as soon as news of the results hit the streets. Orange fires burned on the hills above the capital, white smoke rising into the dim electric light. Rocks were thrown at the few passing cars and guns were fired in the air. The shouts of people — drunken, reveling, angry and scared — rang across barricaded streets.

A man takes a photo of the destruction with his cell phone on Wednesday.
David Gilkey / NPR
A man takes a photo of the destruction with his cell phone on Wednesday.

Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor, is the wife of former Haitian President Leslie Manigat, who served briefly in the late 1980s after a much-criticized election before being deposed by a coup. Her supporters include a powerful senator who organized violent protests in his home department ahead of the first round of voting.

Celestin, a virtual unknown before the election, is the candidate of Preval's Unity party. He is the head of the state-run construction company whose trucks carted bodies and limited amounts of rubble out of the city after the Jan. 12 quake.

His campaign was the best-funded of the group, but Preval's inability to jump-start a moribund economy or push forward reconstruction after the massive earthquake drained his support. Many voters said they would accept "anyone but Celestin," whom they equate with the unpopular Preval.

Twelve of the 19 candidates on the ballot joined on Nov. 28 to allege that fraud was used to ensure a Celestin victory and call for the cancellation of the vote. Manigat and Martelly were among them but later reversed position when officials remarked they had a chance to win.

Martelly, a popular carnival singer, was a dark horse who gained widespread credibility in the days before the vote. Thousands of his supporters took to the streets of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien while polls were still open, many believing he had won the race.

The much anticipated results were released by council President Gaillot Dorsainvil, and the clear winner in the bid for Senate seats was Preval's Inite, or Unity party, which advanced to a run-off in nine races and won a 10th. An independent candidate won the 11th.

Turnout in the November presidential election was low: Just over 1 million people cast accepted ballots out of some 4.7 million registered voters.

NPR's Jason Beaubien contributed to this report, which contains material from The Associated Press.

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NPR Staff and Wires