In shift, U.S. says it might reject Haiti election results

McClatchy NewspapersJanuary 7, 2011 

WASHINGTON — The Obama administration on Friday didn't rule out that it could support tossing out the results of Haiti's disputed presidential election if a soon-to-be-released review calls for it.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's chief of staff, Cheryl Mills, said the agency is waiting for the findings from a team of election experts convened by the Organization of American States to determine its course.

Should the panel call for canceling the elections and/or scheduling a do-over, Mills said, "We obviously would be interested to understand how they came to those conclusions, would want to review whether or not those conclusions were one that we thought we, too, could support.

"All those are things we would be prepared to entertain, but I wouldn't be able to tell you what we would do, obviously, because until we know what they concluded and how they concluded it, we're not in the best position to be able to do that," she said.

Twelve of the 19 candidates on the Nov. 28 presidential ballot have pressed for the elections to be canceled, citing massive fraud. At issue is whether current President Rene Preval's choice, Jude Celestin, garnered enough votes over musician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly to advance to a runoff against former first lady Mirlande Manigat.

The resulting furor has hampered efforts to fight cholera, overshadowed reconstruction and sparked tension among a population preparing to commemorate the anniversary of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000. For days, unconfirmed rumors have circulated about the findings in the final report, which is expected to be delivered to Preval either over the weekend or next week.

Mills' remarks constitute a shift for the U.S., which has said it would like for Preval to pass the presidential sash over to an elected government that includes a president and members of both chambers of parliament. All would have to be redone if the elections are canceled.

Kenneth Merten, the U.S. ambassador to Haiti, told McClatchy last month that the U.S. didn't back a transitional government.

Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told McClatchy last week that one of the best legacies of his and Preval's government would be to pass the government on to an elected successor, fearing that a provisional government would set back the country.

"We have to come out of the crisis with a result that is not putting too much at stake — the stability that we have reached the last four years," Bellerive said.

After an electoral council announced that Celestin was in the runoff, Martelly's supporters spent three days setting the capital and major Haitian cities ablaze, destroying businesses. The fear of violence continues to loom no matter what the review finds. Ultimately, the decision on whether to accept the OAS results and cancel the elections lies with Preval, who asked for the OAS mission last month.

Mills' remarks — which came at a briefing about progress in Haiti — follow a meeting Thursday at the White House between Vice President Joe Biden and more than a dozen Haitian-Americans, who said they cautioned Biden against supporting any effort to use the results of the election to select the country's new president.

"Forcing a runoff with the results of that election is not going to be advantageous to Haiti or the United States," said Jean-Robert Lafortune, the chairman of the Haitian-American Grassroots Coalition. "We would spend five more years in political turmoil. We gave that message in many shapes and forms to the vice president."

Mills wouldn't say whether the U.S. would support Preval remaining in office beyond his term. Under an agreement with the Haitian Senate, Preval could remain in office until May 14 if no president has been elected. Haiti's constitution calls for a new president to assume office on Feb. 7 every five years — but it also calls for an elected president to serve out a five-year mandate, which for Preval would be May 14.

"I think all of those are things that I think are going to really play out in the next week or so," Mills said, adding that the OAS review "will actually help shape whether or not there can be and on what timeline there would be a transitional government."

Daniel Supplice, a political adviser to Martelly, said Friday that "if everyone agrees that the fraud is so massive that the elections should be redone, then we would support it."

Manigat, in an interview on local Haitian radio, said she'd only favor a transitional government to finish the election. She doesn't support a do-over, as other candidates have suggested.

Mills reiterated that the U.S. had initially expressed concerns about the election, saying the announced results were "inconsistent with at least the preliminary analysis, information, quick counts and other things that we had been privy to."

Mills pointed to post-earthquake accomplishments in Haiti, but she acknowledged enormous work ahead, with next week's anniversary coming at a time of extreme political instability.

Mills said the U.S. and the international community wants to support "a way that ensures that the people of Haiti both get the leadership that they voted for, but they also get the kind of leadership that they need in the future."

(Clark reported from Washington. Charles, of the Miami Herald, reported from Port-au-Prince.)

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