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27863: (news) Chamberlain: Haiti election authority says fraud tainted vote (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

     By Joseph Guyler Delva

     PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, Feb 17 (Reuters) - Haiti's presidential
election was tainted by signs of fraud including blank ballots that
represented a third of the votes cast in some polling stations, electoral
authorities said on Friday.
     The conclusion of fraud served as a defense of the Provisional
Electoral Council's decision a day earlier to hand the election to Rene
Preval, a champion of Haiti's poor who had complained over the ballot
irregularities. The finding conflicts with statements from some
international organizations.
     In addition to the blank ballots, in other polling stations the number
of ballots left over at the end of the day was less than the number of
people who had voted would indicate.
     "The blank ballots were probably introduced into the ballot boxes in a
fraudulent manner," Max Mathurin, president of the electoral council, told
Vision 2000 radio, "This looked weird," he said.
     It was the council's first public acknowledgment that the Feb. 7
election was tainted by what Preval called massive fraud.
     The council  on Thursday morning gave the election to Preval after he
complained about the large number of ballots that had been left unmarked by
voters. The total number of blank votes amounted to between 85,000 and
90,000, Mathurin said, out of 2.2 million votes cast.
     The blank ballots reduced Preval's vote share to less than the
majority needed for a first-round victory. Several of Preval's rival
candidates had earlier agreed to join forces against him in the event of a
second round.
     Blank ballots are a common way to express a protest vote in
established democracies. But few Haitians believed that their fellow voters
were unable to find a suitable candidate among the 33 rivals running for
the presidency.
     Nor was it likely that all those people would have walked miles (km)
and waited in line for hours, just to leave ballot papers unmarked,
Mathurin said.
     The discovery of half-burned votes, many cast for Preval, on a garbage
dump in Port-au-Prince fueled suspicions and the final straw was when the
council discovered the large numbers of blank votes in some polling
stations -- numbers it could not believe were legitimate.
     "In some polling stations, blank ballots totaled a quarter of the
votes, and in some others, one third of the votes," Mathurin said.
     He blamed polling-station workers, who were often all of the same
political persuasion.
     He also said that 4 percent of votes could not be found. Preval was
granted a first-round victory with 50.15 percent after 96 percent of
ballots had been counted.
     Some international organizations said the election was clean.
     "There was no fraud," Jose Miguel Insulza, secretary general of the
Organization of American States, said on Thursday. "The votes were properly
counted, and despite some reports, there should be no talk about fraud and
nobody can prove there were irregularities."