PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Thousands of protesters rampaged through Haiti’s capital on Wednesday to contest election results, and they torched the headquarters of the ruling government coalition they accused of rigging the vote count, witnesses said.
Port-au-Prince descended into chaos as supporters of popular musician and presidential candidate Michel Martelly, who failed to qualify for an election run-off in results announced by electoral authorities, set up burning barricades of timber, boulders and flaming tires across the city.
Protests in which government buildings were burnt down were also reported in at least one other town in the poor, volatile Caribbean country. The unrest appeared to dash international hopes that the U.N.-backed elections could create a stable new leadership for Haiti, which is struggling to recover from a devastating January earthquake.
Police fired tear gas to prevent a stone-throwing mob from reaching the offices of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) in the Petionville district of the capital, witnesses said.
Preliminary results from the turbulent November 28 elections announced late on Tuesday showed former first lady Mirlande Manigat and outgoing President Rene Preval’s protege, Jude Celestin, to have made the January run-off, with Martelly narrowly in third place and so excluded.
But these results flew in the face of voting returns previously cited by media and Haitian election observers that had shown Manigat and Martelly as the two run-off qualifiers, not government technocrat Celestin. Martelly had already accused Preval and Celestin of trying to rig the results.
The United States, through its embassy in Port-au-Prince, cast doubt on the CEP results late on Tuesday, saying it was concerned they were “inconsistent with” vote counts observed by “numerous domestic and international observers.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon expressed concern on Wednesday about “allegations of fraud,” he said in a statement.
“He also notes that these results are not final and are subject to the provisions stipulated in the electoral law,” U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said in New York.
Under Haitian electoral law, candidates have 72 hours in which to formally challenge the announced results.
The protesters in Port-au-Prince set fire to the headquarters of Preval’s ruling (Inite) coalition. Businesses and schools stayed closed and many fearful residents stayed home, off the rubble-strewn streets. There was no traffic apart from an occasional police or U.N. vehicle.
Local police appeared to be overwhelmed by the numbers of the protesters. U.N. peacekeepers of the more than 12,000-strong U.N. force in Haiti were not seen intervening.
At least one U.N. helicopter clattered overhead.
Plumes of black smoke rose above the sprawling, crowded city, which bears the scars of the January 12 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest state. Haiti is also battling a cholera epidemic.
U.N. chief Ban expressed concern about the violence. “A peaceful solution to the current situation is crucial not only to confront the cholera epidemic in the short term but also to create the conditions in the medium term for recovery and development from the earthquake,” his statement said.
The protests erupted in the Petionville, Delmas and Canape Vert districts of the capital, among other areas.
Local radio also reported protests in the southern town of Les Cayes in which Martelly supporters burnt down government buildings, including the tax and customs offices.
Amid flaming barricades and shouting insults against Preval, the enraged Martelly supporters tore down, or hurled stones at election posters of Celestin and also of Manigat.
“It’s not money that gives power, it’s the people that should give power,” said one protester, Lafranche Schneider.
“Hang Preval!” other protesters yelled.
American Airlines suspended flights to and from Haiti, local airline staff told reporters. Port-au-Prince’s airport appeared to be closed.
“The 2010 elections represent a critical test of whether the Haitian people will determine their destiny through their vote,” the U.S. embassy said in its statement.
“The United States, together with Haiti’s international community partners, stands ready to support efforts to thoroughly review irregularities in support of electoral results that are consistent with the will of the Haitian people expressed in their votes,” it added.
The United Nations mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and a joint Organisation of American States/Caribbean Community election observer mission had given a cautious initial endorsement of the vote, despite acknowledging irregularities.
The Provisional Electoral Council said Manigat won 31.37 percent of the first-round votes ahead of Celestin with 22.48 percent. It put Martelly less than one percentage point behind Celestin at 21.84 percent.
This was on the basis of just over a million votes counted, out of a total of 4.7 million registered potential voters.
The second round has been provisionally set for January 16, but the date has to be confirmed by electoral authorities.
Additional reporting by Allyn Gaestel in Port-au-Prince and Patrick Worsnip in New York; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Tom Brown