Observers wait for Preval to accept OAS report

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – International observers are waiting on Haiti's president to accept a report suggesting his party's candidate be eliminated from a contentious election to choose the quake-ravaged country's next leader.

Haitian electoral officials must make the final decision on what to do, and the recommendations by observers from the Organization of American States could weigh heavily.

But first they have to officially receive the report.

That step was thwarted Monday when President Rene Preval's office declined to grant an appointment to the observation team, OAS assistant secretary-general Albert Ramdin said.

"The report is ready and completed and ready to be handed over. We are waiting on the signal from the government of Haiti ... when the report can be handed over," Ramdin said by telephone on Monday night. "Apparently today it wasn't possible. We suggested tomorrow morning but our mission has not received any word back."

The report has not been made public. But a draft copy obtained by The Associated Press said the disputed Nov. 28 vote should neither be thrown out entirely nor recounted, but that enough fraudulent or improper ballots should be invalidated to drop ruling-party candidate Jude Celestin into third place and out of the second-round runoff.

That would favor carnival singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a populist candidate who was in third place and out of runoff contention when results were announced last month. Former first lady and law professor Mirlande Manigat would remain in first place. All the top candidates would lose thousands of votes under the team's recommendations.

Multiple foreign officials confirmed the conclusions in the report obtained by the AP. They spoke on condition of anonymity because the report had not been made public and was not supposed to be discussed until it was reviewed by Preval.
In a Monday night radio press conference that lasted for more than an hour, Preval dismissed news accounts of the report's contents and said that a copy had not been made available to him.

"I have not received any report, the prime minister also has not received any report," Preval said. "I don't know if there was a leak. I don't know what they are saying outside. But the mission has not turned over its report yet. I don't think that report is finished."
Preval also told reporters that international officials had offered to fly him out of the country before the end of his term as unrest simmered following the vote, which he refused.

That echoed comments made in an interview in Brazil by the OAS representative in Haiti, Ricardo Seitenfus, who said that such a proposal was floated at an election-day meeting at which he said Ramdin was present.

Seitenfus was told to leave Haiti by OAS officials following an earlier interview with Swiss media in which he criticized U.N. peacekeepers and the international community in Haiti. He is not expected to have his term extended or renewed.
Ramdin strenuously denied that such a conversation took place.

"The OAS is absolutely not involved in any kind of discussion or plans to have a constitutionally elected president leave before his term ends," he said.

Preval's term is scheduled to end Feb. 7, but he could remain in power until May because he was inaugurated late in 2006. He is adamantly opposed to the installation of a provisional government to serve while a new election is prepared.
Rioting broke out in several cities when the preliminary results were announced, with Martelly's supporters blocking streets and demanding their candidate be immediately named president.

The U.S. Embassy expressed doubt over the results at the time, saying they did not match observers' polling estimates that showed Celestin in line to be eliminated.

The second round was originally scheduled for Jan. 16 but was delayed in part because electoral officials were waiting for the results of the OAS review.

The OAS team included electoral, technical and statistical experts from the United States, France, Canada, Jamaica and the OAS. It reviewed a sample representing roughly 16.9 percent of the votes cast, along with ballot boxes and bags, user access logs and other material.

They found that tens of thousands more votes than previously thought should be discarded because polling-place officials did not follow procedures or because of signs that tally sheets were altered.

"After a thorough statistical analysis ... the Expert Mission has determined that it cannot support the preliminary results of the presidential elections released on Dec. 7, 2010," the report said.

Martelly would end up in second place with 22.2 percent after having 7,150 votes ruled invalid. Celestin would drop to third place with 21.9 percent after losing 17,220 votes. Manigat would remain in first place with 31.6 percent after having 13,830 of her votes thrown out.

The team decided not to recommend holding a new vote because "a new election would involve more contests and candidacies than the evidence warranted."

A new election also would be a burdensome expense for the impoverished country, and "subject the Haitian people to a further lapse in constitutional governance," it added.

It also decided against recommending a partial do-over in "certain problematic locations" or a nationwide recount.
Some critics of the election say the entire vote should be thrown out because of rampant disorganization, fraud and instances of violence and voter intimidation.

Twelve of the 19 candidates, including Manigat and Martelly, joined together while polls were still open to demand the vote be tossed out. The front-runners changed tune a day later after U.N. and other officials informed them they were expected to advance to a runoff.

The Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, a left-leaning think tank, said the vote should be invalidated because errors and fraud were too widespread and the party of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is still popular in Haiti, was not allowed to participate.

"The OAS has abandoned any professional standards by certifying an election where nearly three-quarters of registered voters did not vote because the country's most popular political party was banned," said economist Mark Weisbrot. "Given the massive
irregularities in that first round, it is not even possible to determine who the top two finishers were."

Celestin campaigned in Port-au-Prince on Monday. His campaign chief, Sen. Joseph Lambert, said the campaign would not comment because it did not have a copy of the report.

The Martelly campaign also declined comment, and a Manigat spokesman did not return calls.