PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti's interim government agreed Tuesday to review vote counts from the Feb. 7 election, after presidential front-runner Rene Preval claimed that "massive fraud or gross errors" had deprived him of victory.
The agreement came after Preval urged his supporters to continue protesting the vote count, but to do so peacefully. Blazing roadblocks that had paralyzed Port-au-Prince, the capital, for two days disappeared almost immediately after Preval's nationally broadcast radio address, demonstrating his power to control the streets, and sending a signal to political opponents to concede the election to him. None complied.
Although sporadic gunfire crackled across the capital, the mood of demonstrators switched from menacing to merry.
"The people are frustrated and they have the right to demonstrate, but they should respect the rights of others," Preval said from his campaign headquarters at his sister's hilltop villa.
"No one should go into private houses or destroy cars or block roads. The simple people are the ones who suffer, the small vendors and drivers and workers."
The scenes of shouting, stick-wielding youths torching cars, tires and debris were harmful to his campaign's effort to "retain international sympathy," Preval said.
Long a close ally of exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Preval inherited his mentor's impoverished followers but also their penchant for violent outbursts at perceived injustice.
While urging his supporters to keep up the pressure for review of what he contends are manipulated vote tabulations, Preval warned them to be wary of radical infiltrators bent on painting his Lespwa movement, which means "hope" in Creole, as violent and undemocratic.
One pro-Aristide activist in the capital's Cite Soleil slum, Jean Joseph, called on Aristide loyalists Monday night to converge on the National Palace to clamor for a declaration that Preval had won. Thousands swarmed the scene of tense talks between Preval and Haiti's distrusted interim leaders, chanting and setting parked cars and vendors' kiosks ablaze.
Many of Haiti's poor probably voted for Preval because they believed he would allow Aristide to return from South Africa, where he has spent most of the last two years, after fleeing an armed rebellion under U.S. escort. Preval, who served as president between Aristide's two terms, has said nothing stands in the way of Aristide's repatriation but has been vague about whether he would welcome the fiery former priest's presence.
Official balloting results are not expected to be published for several days. Counting stopped Sunday when protesters converged on the media center at the Hotel Montana, where nightly press conferences had been used to announce a running tally. When Preval's margin began to slip below 50%, the protests began. Thousands returned to the hotel Monday to confront election officials, overrunning security guards and trampling the grounds after discovering the officials were not there.
Preval has sought to persuade U.N. officials, foreign diplomats and Haiti's interim authorities to review his claims of counting irregularities before announcing final figures. Preval hinted that any determination by the electoral council that a March 19 runoff would be needed could ignite uncontrolled protests by supporters.
"If they publish these figures as they are, we will contest them -- and if Lespwa contests them, the Haitian people will contest them," Preval warned.
The latest figures from the Provisional Electoral Council, posted midday Monday, showed Preval just short of an outright majority among the 33 presidential contenders, with 48.76%.
The nearest challenger was Leslie Manigat, 75, who polled 11.8% and has so far spurned suggestions that he concede victory to spare the country a costly and potentially chaotic runoff.
The third-place candidate, garment factory owner Charles Henri Baker, whose share stands at less than 8%, also opposes any concession that would hasten Preval's ascent to the National Palace.
Baker, 50, a member of the tiny, light-skinned elite that controls Haiti's economy, was one of Aristide's most passionate adversaries.
Some distant finishers have offered to cede their votes to Preval, including former Aristide police chief Dany Toussaint and former Port-au-Prince mayor Evans Paul. But others argue that Preval needs a clear victory to prevent a cloud of illegitimacy over his presidency.
Voting irregularities in the May 2000 parliamentary election prompted a boycott of the presidential vote six months later that returned Aristide to power for a second term, and set Haiti on its descent into institutional chaos.