PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti's election ended in discord Sunday, with nearly all the major presidential candidates calling for the vote to be voided over fraud and U.N. peacekeepers lamenting "numerous incidents that marred the elections."
Sunday evening found crowds surging through the streets carrying tree branches and campaign posters, some protesting problems with the balloting but most jubilantly claiming victory for their candidates.
Twelve of the 19 candidates for president endorsed a joint statement denouncing the voting as fraudulent and calling on their supporters to show their anger with demonstrations against the government and the country's Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP.
"It is clear that the government of Rene Preval, in agreement with the CEP, is putting into execution the plan hatched to tamper with the elections ... with the help of the official political party and its candidate, Jude Celestin," independent candidate Anne Marie Josette Bijou read as nearly every other candidate nodded in agreement.
The statement included all of the major contenders but one: Jude Celestin, who is backed by the Unity party of President Rene Preval.
Preval twice sailed into office with the backing of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's supporters, but was branded a traitor for not returning his predecessor from exile. Frustrations grew as Haiti's economy remained one of the world's worst. When the laconic leader disappeared from sight following the Jan. 12 earthquake, frustration boiled into anger.
Until tapped as a candidate by Preval, Celestin was the little-known head of the state-run construction company whose dump trucks carted many of the quake's estimated 300,000 dead to mass graves. His well-funded campaign, the first under Preval's newly created party, included airplanes trailing banners with his name and dropping leaflets that fluttered like yellow-and-green birds over tent camps for the quake homeless.
A text message sent to Haitian cell phones Saturday summed up the primary message of Celestin's campaign: "Let's assure stability." His campaign workers already referred to him as "The President."
But support for the other candidates was far more passionate. Some opinion polls put Mirlande Manigat, 70-year-old former first lady whose husband was helped to power and then deposed by a military junta, as the likely winner. Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, known for jazzy, sarcastic dance music, had thousands of urban youths toting his pink signs and shouting to "Vote for the bald head!"
In other races, ninety-six contenders were competing for 11 Senate seats and more than 800 others were seeking to fill the 99-seat lower house.
But the day was thrown into chaos around 2 p.m. when nearly the entire presidential ballot took the stage in the ballroom of an upscale hotel to roars from their followers. Individual cheers melded into a single chant of "Haiti! Haiti!" before the crowd burst into Haiti's national anthem.
The statement called on people to protest, concluding that the fraud was a ploy by "the corrupt government of Preval" to "perpetuate his power and keep the people hostage to continue their misery."
The crowd errupted in cheers and chanted "Arrest Preval!" as the rival candidates joined hands and raised their arms in triumph.
Demonstrators were already in the streets, some outside the gates of the hotel, as body-armored U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police moved out in trucks and a U.N. helicopter circled the election headquarters.
Thousands continued protesting peacefully into the night, some throwing rocks at police who fired back tear gas. People danced through the major cities of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien, carrying posters of their candidates and chanting their names, most celebrating Martelly, the popular musician.
The electoral council never suspended voting, though the presence of protesters on the street from early afternoon likely affected turnout in the capital. In an evening news conference, the council praised the day's voting and denounced the candidates' protest, saying after repeated questioning from local media that the challenge was not a legal document.
"The CEP cannot accept things that are not formal and are not legal," said council official Pierre Louis Opont.
The officials said there had only been irregularities at 56 voting centers and said they would investigate them, but made it clear that the balloting would stand.
Swiping back at the challengers, Opont added: "If they declare that one of these candidates won, are they going to say they don't want to be elected?"
Preliminary results were not expected until Dec. 7, and all but the most confident supporters of individual candidates expected to see a run-off for races at all levels.
The international community expressed serious concern.
Representatives of the major international donors, including the ambassadors of the U.S., Canada, France and the European Union, met after the candidates declaration to discuss the situation, said Organization of American States Assistant Secretary-General Albert Ramdin, who is in Haiti to monitor the elections.
"We are all concerned about the possibility of violence because we don't want to see people lose lives in a process that should be democratic," Ramdin said.
The United Nations said that it "and the international community expressed their deep concern at the numerous incidents that marred the elections." The chief OAS/Caribbean Community observer, Colin Granderson, added that observers were "in the process of evaluating and analyzing the information gathered on the conduct of the vote."
Even before their reports are issued, the united front of so many presidential candidates cast serious doubt on the legitimacy of the election, the first since the quake killed hundreds of thousands, destroyed much of the capital and sent the moribund economy into a tailspin.
Tensions are already high following a series of deadly clashes earlier this month between U.N. peacekeepers and demonstrators who suspected them of bringing a rapidly spreading cholera outbreak.
Voters throughout the country showed up at polling stations only to find them closed hours after their scheduled opening, or to be turned away because their names were not on lists. Even Celestin was initially turned away.
There were also sporadic reports of violence and intimidation, as well as a ballot box being stolen and its contents strewn about in the capital's Cite Soleil slum.
In the town of Grande Riu Du Nord, about 12 miles (20 kilometers) east of Cap-Haitien, youths sacked a polling station and scattered thousands of ballots. Photos obtained by the AP showed that some of the ballots apparently had been filled out. More were burned in a road. The motives in the attack were unknown.
Voter rolls were filled with the dead, and many living citizens were struggling to figure out if and where they could vote.
Observers from dozens of parties crowded voting areas and furious voters were turned away from stations where poll workers could not find their names on lists.
"I don't know if I'm going to come back later. If I come back later it might not be safe. That's why people vote early," said Ricardo Magloire, a Cap Haitien radio journalist whose polling station at a school was still not taking ballots after people had waited more than an hour.
At another voting place in the St. Philomene neighborhood, a woman complained that young men were taking advantage of the chaos to vote multiple times. The allegation could not be confirmed because a crowd of one candidate's supporters swarmed around two AP journalists and forced them to leave the area, threatening a photographer.
One man was shot to death at a polling place in rural Artibonite, Radio Vision 2000 reported, though no details were available.
The victor in all this gets a five-year term at the helm of a disastrous economy and leadership of an increasingly angry and suffering population worn down by decades of poverty, the earthquake, a recent hurricane and now a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,600 people.
Yet there is an unprecedented opportunity: the new president will oversee the largest capital spending spree in Haiti's history, the $10 billion pledged in foreign reconstruction aid after the quake. Very little of the money has been delivered so far, as many donor nations are waiting to see who will take over the government.
Donors also want to see if how the election goes off.
Associated Press writers Jonathan M. Katz reported this story in Port-au-Prince and Ben Fox in Cap-Haitien. AP writer Jacob Kushner in Port-au-Prince also contributed to this report.