The headquarters of Haiti’s ruling party was set ablaze Wednesday as protests over disputed presidential election results spread through the Haitian capital, prompting the nation’s president to call for calm.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets, erecting barricades and setting fires, furious that government-backed candidate Jude Celestin, the protege of unpopular President Rene Preval, apparently will go on to a runoff vote while carnival singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly finished third in official results and is probably eliminated. Protests have also broken out in Les Cayes, Cap-Haitien and other cities.
Associated Press journalists saw flames leaping from the roof of the Unity party headquarters, the center of Celestin’s campaign. Witnesses said the building in central Port-au-Prince was on fire for an hour.
Protesters said security guards shot demonstrators as they assaulted the building, but there were no confirmed injures in the fire or demonstration. Several fire trucks tried to control the blaze — an unusual scene in a city with few reliable public services.
Preval urged the candidates to call off the protests.
“This is not how the country is supposed to work,” he said in a live radio speech. “People are suffering because of all this damage.”
The president dismissed allegations that fraud invalidated the election results and faulted the U.S. Embassy for its criticism of the vote, saying it would be up to the country’s Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP, to review the results.
“If there are problems we can sit down and personally discuss it, but the American Embassy is not the CEP,” he said.
The official preliminary results have law professor and former first lady Mirlande Manigat in first with 31.4 percent of the vote and Celestin next with 22.5. Martelly has 21.8 percent — trailing Celestin by about 6,800 votes.
Hundreds of protesters massed near the offices of the electoral council in Petionville, with young men hurling rocks at U.N. peacekeepers in armored personnel carriers. The international troops and police occasionally responded with volleys of tear gas.
The area around the electoral office includes a plaza that is home to several thousand people in a tent encampment erected after the Jan. 12 earthquake so it was unclear whether all of the people on the street were protesters or if some were spectators. Also uncertain were the intentions of the demonstrators.
“If Michel Martelly is not president, in a day or two days things are going to get a lot worse,” said 22-year-old Lucate Hans, carrying a stick and the pink campaign poster of his candidate. “Tensions are going to rise and we are going to kill people.”
The results, announced after hours of delays Tuesday evening, were immediately questioned at home and abroad. The U.S. Embassy said the results did not match reports by official election observers who said Celestin would likely be eliminated in the first round.
An appeals period is open for the next three days, and election observers said a third candidate might be included in a Jan. 16 runoff if the electoral council decides the first-round vote was close enough — though the constitutionality of such a move would be debatable.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has expressed concern about allegations of fraud and the violence and he urged candidates to use only formal, legal procedures to make any challenges to the results, U.N. spokesman Martin Nesirky said.
“He reminds all candidates that they have a personal responsibility to encourage their supporters to remain calm and to stop violence. A peaceful solution to the current situation is crucial not only to confront the cholera epidemic in the short-term but also to create the conditions in the medium term for recovery and development from the earthquake,” Nesirky said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
But the protesters would not wait, and marched through the streets. About 2,000 pro-Martelly demonstrators also gathered near the U.S. Embassy but dispersed without incident.
“We want to tell them Martelly is the president. We won’t accept anything less. Otherwise we will set this country on fire,” Frances Odis said.
Martelly supporters also set up flaming barricades in Petionville, the smoke of burning tires blackening the air. Thousands were on the streets, singing political songs and chanting for “Micky.”
Vehicles were damaged by rocks and items were reportedly stolen from stores. Foreign aid workers complained that Haitian national police were slow to respond and that many officers refused to report to duty following the election results.
American Airlines halted flights in and out of the Haitian capital because airport employees were unable to get to work Wednesday because of demonstrations, spokeswoman Martha Pantin said.
In Les Cayes residents said government buildings had been attacked and set on fire.
Martelly had said before results were released that he believed he would win, and would not accept a spot in a runoff in which Celestin is present. He had not made a statement Wednesday, though some of his staffers had praised the protests on Twitter.
Thousands of voters were disenfranchised by confusion on the rolls during the Nov. 28 election and there were many reported incidents of ballot-stuffing, violence and intimidation confirmed by international observers.
Turnout was low according to the preliminary results, as just over 1 million people cast accepted ballots out of some 4.7 million registered voters. It is not known how many ballots were thrown out for fraud.
Officials acknowledged the rolls were both bloated and incomplete, with hundreds of thousands of earthquake dead still registered and many living voters waiting for ID cards. In the last days of counting, tabulators had to sort out clearly fraudulent tally sheets.
The U.N. secretary-general has said the problems were worse than originally reported. But the U.N. peacekeepers and the joint Organization of American States-Caribbean Community observer mission said the problems did not invalidate the vote.
The chief observer with the OAS-Caricom mission, Colin Granderson, appealed for patience.
“Remember that the results are only preliminary results,” Granderson told AP. “For all candidates who believe there were irregularities or fraud, there are recourses provided by the electoral law.”
Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor, is the wife of former Haitian president Leslie Manigat who served briefly in the late 1980s after a much-criticized election before being deposed by a coup. Her supporters include a powerful senator who organized violent protests in his home department ahead of the first round of voting.
Celestin, a virtual unknown before the election, is the candidate of Preval’s Unity party. He is the head of the state-run construction company whose trucks carted bodies and limited amounts of rubble out of the city after the Jan. 12 quake.
His campaign was the best-funded of the group but Preval’s inability to jump-start a moribund economy or push forward reconstruction after the massive earthquake drained his support. Many voters said they would accept “anyone but Celestin,” whom they equate with the unpopular Preval.
The clear winner in the bid for Senate seats was Preval’s party, which advanced to a run-off in eight of the 10 races in which it competed and won a ninth outright.
Independent candidate, Steven Benoit, a former member of Preval’s abandoned Lespwa movement who championed an increase in the minimum wage, won the 11th Senate seat for the area including Port-au-Prince.
Associated Press writers Jacob Kushner in Port-au-Prince and Ben Fox in San Juan, Puerto Rico, contributed to this report