Rene Preval, presidential candidate of Haiti’s Platform of Hope (Lespwa) party and a longtime ally of ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, was declared winner of the Feb. 7 elections after more than a week’s delay. Preval’s victory, which came on the heels of massive demonstrations protesting evidence of vote fraud committed by his opponents, was announced Feb. 16.

During the extended vote count, officials of the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) reported that Preval, after starting out with a big lead, was gradually falling below the required 50 percent-plus-one-vote required to avoid a run-off.

Then cracks began to appear in the CEP, which is largely composed of Preval’s opponents. Two CEP members publicly denounced the tally as fraudulent.

Fueling charges of vote fraud, thousands of partially burned ballots, many cast for Preval, were found in a Port-au-Prince garbage dump.

Preval, unwilling to accept the official vote count, called his supporters to take the streets. Tens of thousands of Haitians protested in cities and towns across Haiti, sometimes erecting flaming barricades to vent their anger.

Another issue was the very large number of blank ballots, which diluted Preval’s vote percentage. CEP President Max Mathurin subsequently admitted the 85,000 to 90,000 blank ballots “were probably introduced into the ballot boxes in a fraudulent manner.” He put the blame on polling station workers.

After intense negotiations with Preval’s supporters and others, the CEP agreed to equally distribute the blank ballots to all the candidates based on the proportion of votes they received, which raised Preval’s vote to 51.5 percent, adequate for a first-round victory.

The Feb. 7 vote was also marked by complaints that the CEP discouraged Preval’s supporters from casting their vote. Long delays in opening the polls in poor neighborhoods, long waits in line and missing names from voter lists all hurt his vote total. The CEP said 2.2 million voters turned out, about 63 percent of those registered.

The elections represented a defeat for the anti-Aristide opposition. None of the 33 rival candidates, who were part of the opposition that helped oust President Aristide, garnered any significant popular support. Preval’s closest rivals were Leslie Manigat, who received 11.83 percent, and Charles Baker with 7.93 percent.

The election, organized by the CEP in conjunction with the U.S., Canada, France, the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations, cost $75 million.

The New York-based Haitian Lawyers Leadership Network (HLLN) is calling for an investigation into the role that the Brazilian-led UN stabilization forces (Minustah) played in the disappearance and burning of ballots, the OAS’ role in supervising the election, and the awarding of election-related contracts.

Anthony Fenton, co-author of the book “Waging War on the Poor Majority: Canada in Haiti” told the World that U.S. government agencies, such as the National Endowment for Democracy, the International Republican Institute and the Agency for International Development, funneled money and material resources to anti-Aristide opposition parties to prevent a Preval victory.

The OAS awarded the contract to print the ballots to Rudolph Boulos, brother of Reginal Boulos, a leader of the Haiti Democracy Project, which was set up by forces sympathetic to the U.S. to oppose Aristide. Laurent said she would like to know if Rudolph Boulos was responsible for printing and distributing the blank ballots.

While the presidential votes have been counted, the votes for the parliamentary and senate races have not yet been tallied.

Meanwhile, the CEP’s executive director, Jacques Bernard, who has been accused of orchestrating the stuffing of ballot boxes with blank ballots and the dumping of ballots, fled the country on Feb. 19 aboard a special flight to Washington, D.C., without informing other CEP members. Sources within the CEP told the Haitian News Agency that Bernard left Haiti in order to avoid having to defend himself against fraud accusations.

Preval, a 63-year-old agronomist, previously served as president from 1996 to 2001. He served as prime minister under Aristide in 1991, and the two were regarded as close. In the recent period, however, he has sought to distance himself somewhat from Aristide’s movement, the Lavalas Party, and, in contrast to Lavalas, has sent mixed signals about keeping UN troops in Haiti.

Prime Minister Gerard Latortue will remain in power until Preval is sworn in as president on March 29.