Haiti elections process "stabilized" and on track: U.N.

PORT-AU-PRINCE Tue Nov 30, 2010 5:51pm EST

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PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti's elections at the weekend were "fairly good" and were not derailed by the call for annulment made by a group of presidential candidates, two of whom later recanted, the top United Nations official in the country said on Tuesday.

"I'm more confident right now than I was two days ago," Edmond Mulet, the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) told Reuters in his office near Port-au-Prince airport.

During voting on Sunday, 12 of the 18 presidential candidates, including several known frontrunners, shocked the U.N. and international observers by jointly denouncing "massive fraud" and calling for the cancellation of the polls.

The call, made amid protests in the capital against voting problems, created a credibility problem for the troubled elections in Haiti, which is in the grip of a deadly cholera epidemic and recovering from a devastating January 12 earthquake.

This surprise move by a majority of candidates seemed to threaten the international community's hopes that the elections, which may well go to a second round in January, could produce a stable, legitimate new government to lead the poor Caribbean nation's recovery from the earthquake.

But in 24 hours, and facing heavy diplomatic pressure as their supporters took to the streets, Michel Martelly and Mirlande Manigat, both election frontrunners in the group of candidates rejecting the vote, changed their position and said they wanted the process to go ahead and counting to proceed.

"I think that the concerns and problems we were facing last Sunday are behind us and we'll see what will happen in the next days," Mulet said, adding he believed the situation had "stabilized" after the street protests and fears of violence.

U.N. peacekeepers were still escorting ballot papers and voting tallies in from around the country, an operation that would be completed late on Wednesday, Mulet said. Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) was due to announce preliminary official results on December 7.

Mulet said that from a logistical and security point of view, the contribution of the more than 12,000-strong U.N. peacekeeping force in the country had been effective.

Despite protests and some clashes, there had been far less violence than initially feared.

"We had two or three people killed and some frictions and problems but if you compare this to previous elections in Haiti, or even if you compare this to other elections in the region, I would say that this was a fairly good election in many ways," Mulet said.

But he added: "It's not finished, it's not completed, it's ongoing"

Manigat, a 70-year-old opposition matriarch and former First Lady, "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a popular musician and star of Haiti's Kompa dance rhythms, and government technocrat Jude Celestin, a protégé of outgoing President Rene Preval, had led the field of the 18 presidential candidates, according to opinion polls.

The multiple contenders increased the likelihood of the contest going to a deciding run-off, provisionally on January 16.

WORRIES ABOUT STABILITY

Port-au-Prince was generally calm on Tuesday and blue-helmeted U.N. peacekeepers patrolled the streets of the earthquake-ravaged capital, still littered with electoral posters, and, in some areas, unused ballot papers.

On Sunday, voting delays and problems and frustration among voters unable to find the polling stations where they were registered, boiled over into street protests, in which several thousand people took part. One voting center was trashed.

An elections observer mission from the Organization of American States and the Caribbean Community reported on Monday that while "irregularities", some of them serious, were detected, these did not necessarily invalidate the elections.

The visible confusion, coupled with the initially united denunciation of fraud and call for annulment by the majority of candidates, raised the possibility of the polls failing, which could plunge the volatile country into political crisis.

Some analysts feared skepticism among Haitians over the elections, and perception that the international community might back a flawed vote, could still threaten the credibility of the process and of the new government it produced.

"It's hard to see that this will be a formula for stability if there are lots of questions and doubts ... this is not a very comforting election," Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue told Reuters.

Mulet said he had personally spoken to the candidates, including Manigat and Martelly, who had denounced fraud on Sunday and had sought the annulment of the elections.

He told them that by discrediting the voting process they could be affecting their own chances of winning.

"I think that in the 3,000 years of history of democracy, it's probably the first time that we see candidates who could be among the winners claim there was fraud and ask for the cancellation of the elections," Mulet said.

"I think what we need now in Haiti is patience," he added.

(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva and Allyn Gaestel; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

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