Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti — With the country reeling from the effects of January's earthquake and a devastating cholera epidemic, the general elections slid into chaos Sunday as thousands complained they could not cast ballots and a majority of presidential candidates accused the Haitian government of committing "massive fraud."
Twelve of the 18 presidential candidates issued a declaration saying the hastily prepared elections should be canceled and that the people should "mobilize" to reject the results. They accused President Rene Preval of conspiring with the country's electoral council to ensure that his party, Unity, was in control of Parliament, and its candidate, Jude Celestin, won the presidency.
Protests erupted in parts of the rubble-strewn capital, Port-au- Prince, and groups of young men vandalized several voting centers.
"Preval is a thief!" shouted Steve Laguerre, 21, at a protest in Petionville in the afternoon. "He should go to prison."
Laguerre, a student, had his voter registration card with him but was turned away from a polling center in Petionville because his name was not on the list of registered voters for that site — a complaint heard throughout the nation.
There were no reports of significant violence. But if history is any indicator, Haitians will take to the streets en masse in upcoming days if they feel the elections have been stolen.
"We're going to shut everything down," said Wilner Bae, 34, at the Petionville protest.
The head of the electoral council acknowledged that there had been "some problems," according to radio reports, but the council later declared the elections a success.
The international community had pushed hard for the voting, hoping it would produce a legitimate government that would help jumpstart reconstruction efforts bogged down by indecision and red tape.
One remarkable aspect of these elections was that people in neighborhoods long prone — and sometimes pressured — to vote for one party now were pondering others. The populist former president, Jean Bertrand Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa, dominated politics for the last two decades, with Preval elected twice based largely on the perception that he is Aristide's protege.
But on Sunday, voters spoke openly about the array of candidates.
Twelve presidential candidates called a news conference at the Karibe Hotel in the early afternoon to criticize the election. Celestin was not among them.
"We denounce in front of the Haitian people, in front of the media, in front of the international community, the massive fraud that is being committed throughout the country, in a majority of the voting centers," said Josette Bijou, one of the candidates, reading their joint declaration.
"We demand the annulment, pure and simple, of these fake elections," she said.
A big rally for popular singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly came soon after. The singer climbed onto a pickup truck as supporters swarmed around him and chanted impromptu slogans. "It's not his money, it's our will!" they sang, a refrain once sung for Aristide.
United Nations spokesman Vincenzo Pugliese said the U.N. and the international community "express their sincere concern over the numerous incidents that marked the unfolding of the polling." He urged calm, saying that a deterioration of security would have dramatic consequences for victims of the cholera epidemic.
The electoral observation mission from the Organization of American States and Caribbean Community postponed a news conference scheduled in the afternoon. Colin Granderson, the chief of the observer mission, said it was still analyzing information and would make a statement Monday.
One OAS official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to reporters, said observers were called back in the middle of the day because of security concerns.
At one of the polling stations he observed, 1,000 people lined up, but the list had only 39 names of people eligible to vote. "At several bureaus there were no lists of voters," he said.
At a sprawling tent camp off Delmas 33 road, men angrily confronted poll workers and U.N. peacekeepers. "There's 26,000 people in this camp and 840 ballots!" shouted George Kempes.
Lener Rene Gistre, 36, waited in line with a scowl. He said Celestin was paying people to vote for him — but that it wouldn't work. "If anyone comes with money, we'll take it and eat," he said. "But I'm alone in the voting booth."
Gistre said he planned to cast a ballot for Mirlande Manigat, a professor and longtime critic of Aristide who was briefly first lady. Next to him, Margareth Edmond, 41, planned to vote for Jean-Henry Ceant, whom some see as Aristide's heir apparent.
"I love Ceant 100% because of Aristide," she said.
Others around them were chanting for Martelly. "He's just been on my mind," said Joseph Duchatelier, 35. "I don't know why I like him. He's just different."
Though Celestin was second in recent polling, it was very difficult to find support for him on the streets. Of dozens of people interviewed at the polls, not one said they planned to vote for him.
The morning started calmly, with far fewer people lining up at polls than there were in the last national election. But lines began to grow, as polling places opened late and the doors were clotted with angry voters who could not find their names.
At a school in the seaside slum of Cite Soleil, Dieumercie Francois, 40, went from list to list trying to find hers. She started at 6 a.m. By 10 a.m., she still hadn't found it. She planned to vote for Manigat, the leader in the recent polls.
"I think they're trying to steal it," she said.