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#3780: Haitian Election Turnout Praised Despite Flaws (fwd)


Monday May 22 5:20 PM ET 
 Haitian Election Turnout Praised Despite Flaws By Jennifer Bauduy

 PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - International observers on Monday praised
Haiti's elections as largely peaceful,though the aftermath of the
polling was marred by fights among partisan supporters and allegations
that gunmen had stolen ballot boxes from dozens of polling sites.
 Haitian and U.S election officials lauded the high turnout and the
absence of large-scale violence after months of political killings
leading up to Sunday's long-postponed parliamentary and local elections.
 ``We can say that this is perhaps the first time that so many people
have gone to the polls to vote in legislative and local elections,''
Provisional Electoral Council President Leon Manus said, estimating that
60 percent of Haiti's 4 million registered voters participated.
 Voters in the impoverished Caribbean nation chose candidates to fill
some 7,500 posts including 19 Senate seats, the entire 83-seat Chamber
of Deputies and 133 mayors. Polling was relatively peaceful. But it was
marred by a shootout that killed a gunman and a policeman at a polling
site north of the capital. On Monday, supporters of one mayoral
candidate in Port-au-Prince of the Lavalas Family party of former    
President Jean-Bertrand Aristide attacked the headquarters of another
candidate, hurling rocks and bottles and firing guns at party members.
Seven people were injured and several others scrambled
 over walls and sought refuge at the nearby office of the U.S. Agency
for International Development.

 Gunmen Storm Polling Sites

 ``We are more popular and we think we won, so they attacked us so we
wouldn't say that we won,'' said Jean Pierre, a member of the party
under attack. The nation of 7.5 million people has operated without a
fully functioning government since President Rene Preval dissolved
parliament in January 1999. The voting was expected to set the stage for
presidential elections later this year. After polls closed and workers
began counting ballots by candlelight, armed commandos stormed dozens of
polling sites across the country and made off with the stuffed ballot
boxes, witnesses said. Witnesses in some areas claimed the gunmen were
members of Lavalas Family, allegations that Lavalas Family spokesman
Yvon Neptune called absurd. ``Why would someone doing something illegal
say 'I am a Lavalas Family member?''' Neptune said.With the results not
expected for another week, the courtyard at one regional counting center
in Port-au-Prince was littered with ballots on Monday and workers dozed
on haphazard stacks of ballot boxes -- some still sealed, others ripped
and spilling their contents. The Organization of American States
Election Observer Mission in Haiti praised the high participation of
voters and acknowledged a few ``cases of irregularities.'' ``The mission
is concerned about reports of armed groups in some regions and this
 will be investigated,'' said Orlando Marville, head of the observer
mission. Rep. John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat heading a U.S.
congressional delegation monitoring the election, congratulated Haitian
voters ``for turning out in impressive numbers'' and called Sunday's
election ``important in the democratization of the political process of

 Democracy 'Still Strong'

 ``It was really thrilling,'' Conyers said. ``What the Haitian people
did was a success...Democracy is still strong in the hearts and minds of
the citizens of this country.'' Conyers acknowledged the complaints of
irregularities and said Haiti's constitution sets out a review process
to resolve election-related grievances. ``The election is not over until
the tallying and the computation of ballots and the complaints filed by
anyone aggrieved of the process are all of a piece,'' he said. The
United States led an international invasion that restored Aristide to
power in 1994. The former priest had been elected president in Haiti's
first democratic elections in 1990 but was later overthrown in a coup.
 Preval, his ally and successor, took power in 1996 but elections to
fill empty parliamentary seats in 1997 were annulled due to widespread
fraud. The stalemate has held up distribution of more than $500 million
of sorely needed international aid in Haiti, where the average yearly
income is below $400. Some donor countries have made continued aid
contingent on installing a new parliament. Voting was postponed
indefinitely in one of Haiti's nine geographic departments, Grande Anse,
because partisan battles delayed voter registration. Manus estimated
that 90 percent of the 11,235 polling sites nationwide had opened on