IMAGE: Renee Preval
Roberto Schmidt  /  AFP - Getty Images FILE
Rene Preval has been declared the winner of Haiti's Feb. 7 presidential election
updated 2/16/2006 7:55:04 AM ET 2006-02-16T12:55:04

Rene Preval was declared the winner of Haiti’s presidential election early Thursday under an agreement between the interim government and electoral council, staving off a potential crisis over the disputed vote in the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country.

With nearly all the votes counted, Preval had been just shy of the 50 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 in a phone interview.

'We feel a huge satisfaction'
The agreement, which Brunache said was signed by members of the electoral council and several government ministers, came during a late 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 vote total rose from 49.76 percent to 51.15 percent, Brunache said.

“We have reached a solution to the problem,” said Max Mathurin, president of the Provisional Electoral Council. “We feel a huge satisfaction at having liberated the country from a truly difficult situation.”

Street demonstrations
Last week’s election had triggered massive street protests by backers of Preval, who said fraud was being carried out to deprive him of the majority he needed for a first-round victory. Preval had vowed to formally challenge the results if officials insisted on holding a March runoff.

On Wednesday, the U.N. mission in Haiti issued a statement denouncing the discovery of voting bags, marked ballots and other election materials in a garbage dump near the capital, urging “the Haitian authorities to investigate fully and prosecute anyone found guilty of this apparent grave breach of the electoral process.”

Earlier in the day, AP journalists 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. Discovery of the ballots was initially reported by Haitian TV Tuesday night.

The discovery troubled U.N. officials because the bags were not supposed to be thrown out. “They’re supposed to be kept,” U.N. official Catherine Sung, an electoral adviser who works at the main vote tabulation center, told the AP.

Shown photographs of the signed bags, Sung said they were meant to contain annulled and blank votes. The journalists also saw a green tally sheet of votes, but U.N. officials said that was not important because it was a copy of the original given to political party representatives.

U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said Tuesday night after the TV news images of the dumped ballots were shown that someone may have dumped the ransacked ballots to create an appearance of fraud.

When told by the AP Wednesday morning of the discovery of the bags and of a tally sheet at the site, he said: “That’s extraordinary.” U.N. police were dispatched to retrieve what they could.

Ballots deep in a smoldering dump
Hundreds of people have been carrying away the election materials, some to brandish at street protests. The reeking dump is located more than two miles down a pitted dirt road from a paved highway. The election materials were strewn over at least two acres deep in the smoldering dump.

Jean-Ricot Guerrier, who lives near the site, said the election material was dumped by a truck the day after the election and that someone tried to burn the material before rainfall put out the fire. Impoverished children picking through the garbage found the ballots, he said.

“We’ve been trying to call the media about this for days, but no one came until yesterday,” he said.

At the dump, Cilius Apolon, 33, walked over the discarded ballots and past smashed white plastic ballot boxes, and expressed disgust.

“I got up very early in the morning to vote last week,” Apolon said. “This shows disrespect for the Haitian people.”

A popularly elected government with a clear mandate was 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 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 maintain order.

Preval urged his followers Tuesday to continue protesting nonviolently. Scattered demonstrations occurred Wednesday in Port-au-Prince, with protesters waving Haitian flags and Preval posters.

Besides the blank votes, about 125,000 ballots were also declared invalid because of irregularities. The second-place finisher in the election, Leslie Manigat, also a former president, received 11.8 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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