By STEVENSON JACOBS, Associated Press Writer
Rene Preval was declared the winner of Haiti’s presidential election Thursday under an agreement between the interim government and electoral council, staving off a crisis over last week’s disputed vote in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.
With nearly all the votes counted, Preval had been just shy of the 50.1 percent margin needed to avoid a runoff next month. Under the agreement, some of the 85,000 blank ballots cast in the Feb. 7 election were subtracted from the total number of votes counted, giving Preval a majority, said Michel Brunache, chief of Cabinet for interim President Boniface Alexandre.
“We acknowledge the final decision of the electoral council and salute the election of Mr. Rene Preval as president of the Republic of Haiti,” Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told The Associated Press by telephone after the agreement was made.
Haitians celebrated in the street Thursday as word of Preval’s win spread.
“I’m so happy because we have what we were looking for,” said Elvia Pressoir, 36, who clutched Preval campaign leaflets while waiting outside Preval’s sister’s house for him to appear. “With Preval, we’ll have security, jobs and life will get back to normal.”
The agreement, which Brunache said was signed by members of the electoral council and several government ministers, came during a late Wednesday night meeting of government and election officials in the electoral council offices.
The blank votes represented 4 percent of the estimated 2.2 million ballots cast. By removing some of the blank ballots from the total count, Preval’s share of the vote rose from 49.76 percent to 51.15 percent, Brunache said.
“We have reached a solution to the problem,” Provisional Electoral Council president Max Mathurin said. “We feel a huge satisfaction at having liberated the country from a truly difficult situation.”
The agreement capped a dramatic nine days since Haitians turned out in droves for an election seen as crucial to avoiding a political and economic meltdown in the destitute Caribbean nation. Gangs have gone on kidnapping sprees and factories have closed for lack of security in the two years since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s ouster.
Some 7,300 U.N. troops and 1,750 international police are in the country under Brazilian command, helping to maintain order.
Voters almost overwhelmed poll workers by their numbers on election day. When returns were slow in coming, suspicion built that the vote count was being rigged.
At least one Preval supporter died in massive street protests against alleged fraud, though the demonstrations mostly were peaceful. Preval, a 63-year-old former president, had vowed to challenge the results if officials insisted on holding a March runoff.
On Tuesday, Haitian TV reported the discovery of ballots discarded in a garbage dump near the capital. AP reporters visited the site Wednesday and saw thousands of ballots, some marked for Preval, deep in the dump along with a vote tally sheet and four bags meant to carry returns from the election.
The discovery troubled U.N. officials because the bags were not supposed to be thrown out. U.N. official Catherine Sung, an electoral adviser at the vote tabulation center, told the AP the signed bags were meant to contain annulled and blank votes.
Later Wednesday, the U.N. mission in Haiti issued a statement urging “the Haitian authorities to investigate fully and prosecute anyone found guilty of this apparent grave breach of the electoral process.”
Another 125,000 ballots also were declared invalid because of irregularities, further fueling suspicions of fraud.
Preval, the son of a former government official, has vowed to crack down on hardened criminals blamed for spreading terror in the capital, Port-au-Prince. The shy, soft-spoken candidate has been coy, though, on whether he would welcome back his one-time ally Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa.
The election was billed as a move to restore democracy in the nation of 8 million, but it is a daunting task. With decades of brain drain, capital flight and crippling judicial, security, health and corruption problems, Haiti needs more than a quick electoral fix, experts say.
Once the richest colony in the Americas, Haiti has been impoverished since the world’s only successful slave rebellion forced out French colonizers and a series of corrupt military and civilian dictators began ruling the country in 1804.
The country was ruled for nearly 30 years by dictators Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who fled to France in 1986 amid allegations of human rights violations, mass killings and stealing millions from the national treasury.
Today, most Haitians are unemployed or get by on odd jobs. The majority live in the deforested countryside with no electricity, clean drinking water or health care.