PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haiti's electoral authorities begin deliberating Tuesday whether they should annul results of the disputed presidential election's first round, as recommended by a special commission that reported finding significant fraud.
Electoral council chief Leopold Berlanger declined to comment on the verification commission's findings Monday night, saying his panel would need until June 6 to examine the report and announce a new election calendar for this troubled country.
The Provisional Electoral Council has the final say on election matters.
The leader of the verification commission, Pierre Francois Benoit, told The Associated Press that members of his panel were so troubled by their monthlong review that they had no choice but to recommend starting over and scrapping a presidential runoff vote that has been postponed three times. The panel examined 25 percent of the roughly 13,000 tally sheets from polling stations.
The commission was formed by interim President Jocelerme Privert, who took power in February amid the continuing electoral impasse due to a widespread perception of electoral fraud.
"After digging into it, we started seeing a pattern where a lot of votes could not be traced to a voter or to a group of voters. I call them 'zombie votes,'" Benoit told the AP.
Concurring with what Haitian observer groups said shortly after the Oct. 25 election, Benoit said numerous accreditations issued for political party representatives appeared to facilitate multiple voting because "many people voted more than once." He said the conduct of a number of polling station workers was questionable.
While the October vote also included a slew of legislative contests, Benoit's commission made no recommendation of new balloting for those races. Haiti's Parliament is nearly complete from last year's two voting rounds and getting various senators and deputies to vacate their seats would greatly complicate matters.
Privert has repeatedly said Haiti cannot restart balloting without first building confidence in the electoral machinery.
Lawmakers who named Privert interim president in February had envisioned him making way for a newly elected president May 14. But late Monday, Privert said the electoral council has a responsibility to hold a legitimate vote so an elected leader can take power sometime in early 2017.
There was no immediate comment from U.S. officials about the verification panel's recommendations that the presidential vote be annulled. U.S. taxpayers contributed more than $30 million for Haiti to hold elections during this cycle.
Representatives of the Organization of American States who monitored the verification panel's work and had said last fall's official results looked legitimate to them also declined to comment.
The official tally gave first place to Jovenel Moise, the Tet Kale party candidate who was hand-picked by previous President Michel Martelly.
The results were disputed by local observer groups and virtually all the other candidates, most notably the No. 2 finisher, Jude Celestin. He has called the results showing Moise with nearly 33 percent of the votes a "massive fraud," and many civil society groups expressed concern about the legitimacy of the vote.
Members of Moise's political faction said they had no immediate comment on the commission's report.
In recent days, several foreign embassies have warned their citizens in Haiti that the release of the report could lead to civil unrest across the country.
But after the commission's announcement, Port-au-Prince's downtown appeared calm. There was a heightened presence of U.N. peacekeepers and Haitian police on the streets around the National Palace compound.
Jean Pierre, a Port-au-Prince resident who has a small wedding photography business, said he hoped Haiti's political class accepts the findings and moves on.
"Whenever their protesters take to the streets and burn tires and smash cars it just takes the country backward," he said.
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