INTERNATIONAL MONITORS TRY TO BREAK HAITI STALEMATE
(AFP) - By Clarens Renois
PORT-AU-PRINCE — International monitors began Thursday a drawn-out vote verification process aimed at breaking the political impasse in Haiti following last month's disputed presidential elections.
The team of 10 from the Organization of American States comprised statisticians and electoral and legal experts from the United States, Chile, Canada, France and Jamaica.
"The work will start today and the objective is to work through the weekend," OAS assistant secretary-general Albert Ramdin told AFP, speaking in Washington.
Ramdin predicted no public statements would be made during a behind-closed-doors process that will culminate in a report being presented to President Rene Preval, probably next week.
"They will be at the tabulation centers to understand the whole system as it has operated, which procedures were followed, how it was executed and then they will look at the result sheets and how it was counted," he said.
Preliminary results of the November 28 polls had former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the lead with 31 percent of the vote, followed by ruling party candidate Jude Celestin with 22 percent.
If those results hold, the two should advance to a run-off scheduled for January 16, but the count was rejected by popular singer Michel Martelly, who trailed Celestin in third by less than 7,000 votes.
Martelly's supporters and others took to the streets after the preliminary results, torching cars and government buildings and clashing with rival supporters and UN peacekeepers in violence that killed at least five people.
Preval, who stands accused of rigging the elections in favor of Celestin, has delayed the announcement of definitive results until after the OAS team has reported its findings.
Election day was a mess. Polling stations were trashed and thousands were unable to vote, either because they were not on the register or because they lacked identification papers lost in the earthquake.
The chaotic vote further destabilized a desperately poor Caribbean nation that is still trying to recover from the quake in January that killed a quarter of a million people.
Since mid-October, Haiti, whose recent history has been plagued by violent dictatorships and political upheaval, has also been battling a cholera outbreak that has claimed almost 3,000 lives and infected.
Many of the 19 presidential candidates have rejected the OAS verification mission and are calling for the first round to be scrapped and re-run, accusing Preval of orchestrating blatant rigging in favor of Celestin.
The front-runner, 70-year-old Manigat, urged the the international community last week not to impose its own political solution on the quake-hit nation.
"The OAS fancies itself the great fixer of the crisis, but how much time will it need to complete its work?" she asked, expressing concern that a prolonged verification process could delay the run-off.
Preval has warned it would be unwise to replace him with a transitional government if the political uncertainty is not sorted out before his mandate expires on February 7.
His comments raised the possibility he may seek an emergency three-month extension to his presidency -- through to mid-May -- a course mooted by his government earlier this year.
Increasingly unpopular and facing growing blame for the limp recovery as the first anniversary of the quake approaches, Preval is barred by the Haitian constitution from seeking a third term.
Before any actual recount, Ramdin said OAS experts may want to examine the benchmarks used by Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) in determining valid tally sheets.
"The focus today and tomorrow is really to look into all the systems and then agree on how they are going to proceed. I am sure the experts will stay on until next week," Ramdin said.
Asked if the run-off might need to be delayed because of the protracted recount and verification process, Ramdin said that was a matter for the Haitian authorities and the CEP.
"They have their own benchmarks in terms of how many days they need to prepare for the second round, so they will have to be the ones speaking on this," he told AFP.
The US embassy called the election results "inconsistent," but the international community as a whole has stopped short of discrediting the vote, urging only that the will of the Haitian people is respected.