Haiti’s election ended in discord with nearly all the major presidential candidates calling for it to be disallowed over fraud and claims that large numbers of voters were turned away across the quake-stricken country.
Crowds surged through the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince protesting at problems with the balloting, while others held impromptu celebrations to cheer for their candidates.
Twelve of the 19 candidates for president endorsed a joint statement denouncing the voting as fraudulent and calling on their supporters to show their anger with demonstrations against the government and the country’s Provisional Electoral Council – CEP.
The statement included all of the major contenders but one – Jude Celestin, who is backed by the Unity party of President Rene Preval.
“It is clear that Preval and the CEP were not prepared for elections,” said candidate Anne Marie Josette Bijou, who read the statement to a cheering crowd that sang the national anthem and chanted “Arrest Preval!”.
The CEP had earlier acknowledged problems with the voter lists but said immediately after the candidates’ news conference that the election would continue.
Even so, the united front of so many candidates could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, the first since the January earthquake destroyed much of the capital, leaving more than a million people still stranded in crowded tent encampments.
The call for protests could also spark violence, especially with tensions already high following a series of deadly clashes earlier this month between United Nations peacekeepers and demonstrators who suspected them of bringing a rapidly-spreading cholera outbreak.
Thousands took to the streets of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien, the second-largest city, after the polls closed, dancing and carrying posters of their candidates. Most seemed to be celebrating presidential-candidate-turned-musician Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly.
Police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators near an electoral office in the Delmas section of the capital but there were no immediate reports of major violence.
As darkness fell, there were still thousands of people marching and UN peacekeepers stood guard in trucks near the ruins of the National Palace.
Lawyer Jean-Henry Ceant, running for president on the Love Haiti ticket, dismissed the notion that the calls for protests could result in bloodshed. “The only one responsible for the violence is President Rene Preval,” he said.
The Haitian government had no immediate response to the criticism.
Wyclef Jean, the Haitian-American singer whose own bid for president ended with an August disqualification, joined a convoy led by two candidates – Martelly and factory owner Charles Henri-Baker – to CEP headquarters, where they hoped to meet officials.
Representatives of the major international donors, including the ambassadors of the US, Canada, France and the European Union, met after the candidates’ declaration to discuss the situation, said Organisation of American States assistant secretary general Albert Ramdin, in Haiti to monitor the elections.
“We are all concerned about the possibility of violence because we don’t want to see people lose lives in a process that should be democratic,” he said.
An OAS report on the elections would not be released for several weeks, he said.
Ms Bijou said she had photos and “documentary evidence” of election fraud, but walked away when asked for further details.
Voters throughout the country showed up at polling stations only to find them closed hours after their scheduled opening, or to be turned away because their names were not on lists. At one station, even Mr Celestin was turned away.
There were also sporadic reports of violence and intimidation, as well as a ballot box being stolen and its contents strewn about in the capital’s Cite Soleil slum.
In the town of Grande Riu Du Nord, about 12 miles east of Cap-Haitien, youths ransacked a polling station and scattered thousands of ballots.
It was not yet clear whether the problems were the result of orchestrated fraud or merely disorganisation made worse by the January 12 earthquake.
Voters and candidates said Mr Preval, who was barred from running for re-election, was trying to sway the vote in favour of Mr Celestin.
Electoral rolls were filled with the dead, and many living citizens were struggling to work out if and where they could vote.
One man was shot dead at a polling station in rural Artibonite, Radio Vision 2000 said.
Ninety-six contenders were competing for 11 senate seats and more than 800 more were seeking to fill the 99-seat lower house.