PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Tens of thousands of angry protesters filled the streets of Haiti’s capital Monday, setting fire to barricades, storming a luxury hotel and demanding that front-runner Rene Preval be declared the winner of last week’s presidential elections.
At least two people were killed and several injured in gunfire in the Tabarre neighborhood near the international airport. Witnesses interviewed on Haitian radio blamed United Nations peacekeepers, but a U.N. spokesman denied troops had fired on protesters.
Elsewhere around the capital, demonstrations remained peaceful even as singing, dancing men and women shut down businesses and tied up traffic throughout the city. By nightfall, flaming barricades still dotted the city, but most traffic was allowed safe passage.
“I walked miles to cast my vote last week, and now these rich people need to respect it,” screamed Noel Rolane, a merchant who stood over a burning auto chassis in the Cite Soleil slum. “If they want us to turn this whole country into a heap of ash, then that’s what they’re going to get.”
Monday’s upheavals came two days after much promised final results were expected by many to show that Preval, a former president popular among this country’s poor, won the elections with a simple majority.
Instead, the results dribbled out from the country’s election council showed Preval’s lead shrinking to less than 50 percent, requiring a runoff.
With 90 percent of the vote counted, Preval was leading a 33-man field with 48.7 percent, elections officials said Monday. His nearest opponent, former president Leslie Manigat, had 11.8 percent. Preval needs 50 percent plus one vote to avoid a runoff. Of the 2.2 million ballots cast, about 125,000 have been declared invalid because of irregularities.
Interim Prime Minister Gerard Latortue and other officials appealed for calm in a national radio broadcast: “I’m asking you to go home … The transitional government is not stealing your vote.”
But Preval, in remarks to the Associated Press, said he has “questions about the electoral process. We want to see how we can save the process.” He spoke after he was flown from his home in rural Haiti to the capital for a series of meetings with leading diplomats and the prime minister.
The size of the demonstrations reminded many of 1990, when Preval’s mentor, ousted President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, rose from a charismatic slum preacher to become this country’s first democratically elected president. But in an act that sent shivers through some elite bastions here, thousands of protesters stormed the Hotel Montana, an enclave that houses international reporters, diplomats and the election council’s press center.