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27908: (news) Chamberlain: How the elections crisis was solved (fwd)

From: Greg Chamberlain <GregChamberlain@compuserve.com>

(LA Times, 19 Feb 06)

Belgian Option' Helped Avert Crisis in Haiti

The solution for the blank-ballot issue sprang from closed-door talks
between interim government officials and foreign diplomats.

By Carol J. Williams

PORT-AU-PRINCE ? When word leaked out in the powder-keg streets of
Port-au-Prince that former President Rene Preval's lead was shrinking, his
supporters took to the hills. By the thousands, they stormed up to the
hilltop Hotel Montana, where they believed the overseers of the Haitian
presidential vote were holed up, clambering over the luxury compound's
gates and overwhelming its meager defenses.

But electoral council officials hadn't shown up at the Montana that Monday.
Neither had those administering the vote tabulation at the Sonapi
industrial park near the airport. Although workers hired to input voting
data had made it to the industrial park, they had been sent home for their

It had been nearly a week since 2.2 million voters crushed into overwhelmed
polling places Feb. 7 in Haiti's first elections in six years. Initial
returns had given Preval 61%, but further counting had whittled that lead
to just over 50%, and the percentage kept going lower. Suspicious that
their votes were being stolen, Preval's supporters were spoiling for a

The top United Nations diplomat in Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes, summoned
peacekeeping commanders and officials of Haiti's interim government to an
emergency meeting early Monday afternoon at the operational compound of the
U.N. mission, which is known by its French acronym, MINUSTAH.

A decision was made to send a helicopter to Preval's remote hometown,
Marmalade, to bring the man at the center of the spiraling unrest to the
capital to calm his supporters. When Preval disembarked the U.N.
helicopter, he said only that he had come to try to save the election.

Preval's camp was crying foul, pointing to the large number of blank
ballots ? nearly 5% of the total ? as suspect. Haitians hadn't walked for
miles and stood in unruly lines for hours to cast ballots for none of the
33 presidential choices, his aides argued. They wanted the blank ballots
removed from the count or redistributed proportionate to each contender's
vote share, either of which would boost Preval's percentage above the
simple majority needed for victory.

Meanwhile, diplomats from the United States, Canada, France, Brazil, Chile,
the United Nations and the Organization of American States gathered at the
National Palace to meet with interim President Boniface Alexandre.

"We felt what was needed was a big brainstorming. We thought we should try
to find a way to smooth things over," said Brazil's ambassador to Haiti,
Paolo Cordeiro de Andrade Pinto, whose nation commands MINUSTAH forces and
contributes the largest contingent.

"There was a Latin American perception that the way the blank votes were
handled here is completely different from the way they are considered in
any other country," Cordeiro said.

As tension mounted, political analysts blamed exiled President
Jean-Bertrand Aristide for orchestrating the unrest and raising the specter
of violence ? a tactic remembered from his two truncated presidencies.

Preval emerged Tuesday morning to say he had not summoned the crowds to the
streets and did not have the power to recall them. But in an address
carried live on nationwide radio, he urged his supporters to keep up their
demands for a fair vote count but to do so "peacefully, intelligently and
with respect for private property."

Immediately, the roadblocks were lifted and Preval's supporters turned to
festive marches to press their demands that he be declared the presidential

Tuesday night, another political bombshell exploded. The Telemax TV
station, privately owned and seen as a pro-Aristide bastion, carried
footage of thousands of marked ballots and election material dumped atop a
sodden trash heap. The roadblocks reemerged. The vote-counting remained

The interim government announced an investigation, but by midday Wednesday,
the volatile city crackled anger.

Officials of the Provisional Electoral Council, a nine-member body named
before Aristide's February 2004 departure and composed mostly of his
political opponents, locked themselves into a suburban villa at 11 a.m. to
hash over compromise proposals.

Preval's opponents, noting that he lacked a clear majority, wanted a second
round of voting to be held March 19. But Preval refused to submit to a
runoff, warning of chaos as his supporters were certain that only fraud
could have deprived him of a first-round win.

"They thrashed through the different proposals and eventually settled on a
formula for handling blank votes that is applied in Belgium," said David
Wimhurst, a MINUSTAH spokesman who said the council's decision was made
behind closed doors and solely by its members. "We were out of it,
completely out of it." Others involved in suggesting solutions concede that
foreign diplomats were instrumental in pointing out options.

The Belgian Option, as the compromise has come to be known, met the
technical requirement of the Haitian election decree that unmarked ballots
be counted, Cordeiro said. Along with Chilean Ambassador Marcel Young, he
convinced counterparts from the United States, France and Canada that
insistence on a runoff risked an explosion of violence.

In their respective capitals, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and
Brazilian Foreign Affairs Minister Celso Amorim.

"The deal cut was under the lead of Brazil and Chile. Washington and Paris
reluctantly accepted it," said a source involved in the palace
brainstorming. Contending that the United States has handed off
responsibility for Haiti to South American allies, he said that "when you
outsource an issue, you can't dictate how to run things."

Several sources privy to the three-day diplomatic scurry say the fate of
Aristide didn't enter into the equation, that despite consensus that the
exiled populist's return would be destabilizing, they never tried to trade
declaration of a Preval victory for his promise to keep his predecessor out
of the country.

One observer described the U.S. role as "pretty silent" amid more active
roles by the South American diplomats whose countries contribute the bulk
of MINUSTAH's forces. Cordeiro confirmed that with more than 1,200
Brazilian troops in Haiti, his government felt a responsibility to search
for "creative solutions" in the face of the mounting threat of violence.

Timothy M. Carney, former U.S. ambassador and acting charge d'affaires,
said he did not know whether the subject of Aristide came up during the
council's deliberations because neither he nor the other diplomats spoke
with the Haitian officials during their 14 hours of discussions, which ran
until early Thursday.

"But there has never been any doubt about the U.S. position on Aristide's
return since Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was here last autumn and
said he was a man of the past," Carney said.

The council's 3 a.m. announcement that the blank vote redistribution had
pushed Preval over the victory threshold inspired joyous celebrations
throughout the country. But the 63-year-old president-elect's challengers
denounced the declaration as illegal.

"We are not duped by this Machiavellian comedy of imposing a winner," said
Leslie F. Manigat, the 75-year-old former president who finished a distant
second to Preval and would have been his challenger in a runoff. He accused
"foreign forces" of compelling election officials to break their own

But as congratulations poured in from around the world, Preval's election
became a fait accompli.

At the U.N., Secretary-General Kofi Annan hailed the council's compromise
as "a reasonable way to attempt to resolve a conflict, an impasse that
could have led to conflict and violence."

Rice, in Washington, said the administration looked forward to working with
the new government and expressed hope for a new beginning for a country
long in the grip of dictatorship and corruption.

Preval retreated to his sister's home in the upscale Peguyville
neighborhood and has yet to address his supporters.