US officials: Haiti's Preval could extend term

President Rene Preval could conceivably remain in power for a few weeks beyond his soon-to-expire term if the election for his successor is deemed to be proceeding fairly, senior U.S. officials said following a one-day visit by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Under Haiti's constitution, presidential terms begin and end on Feb. 7. An emergency law passed four months after last year's devastating earthquake by an expiring Senate said Preval could remain in power for up to three months extra because his inauguration was delayed in 2006.

The key issue is what will happen after he leaves office. Clinton made clear in meetings with Preval, the candidates and officials on Sunday that the United States wants Haiti to follow recommendations that would result in the elimination of the president's chosen candidate, Jude Celestin, from the second round.

The members of the provisional electoral council, which has the final say, were individually approved by Preval.

Following those recommendations, made by an Organization of American States expert team, would leave former first lady Mirlande Manigat, a conservative law professor, and singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, a populist, to meet in the second round.

"We support the OAS recommendations and we would like to see them move forward because we think that's the best way to respect the votes of the Haitian people," Clinton told Haiti's Radio Caraibes.

Leaders of Preval's Unity party said last week that Celestin had rightly won the election but should step down because of pressure from the United States and other countries. Days before the State Department canceled visas of Haitian officials, nearly all reportedly from Unity, and the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations said sustained U.S. support for Haiti depended in part on the OAS recommendations being implemented.

Celestin has not publicly commented since. Unity's coordinator did not return calls Monday. His lawyers have continued fighting for him to advance in the race.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity citing department policy, said that Clinton neither asked Celestin to pull out of the race nor Preval to force him out, and that Celestin gave no indication he would resign.

They characterized the meeting with Celestin at the U.S. ambassador's sprawling estate in Petionville as "very respectful."

The announcement of who will be on the rescheduled March 20 ballot is expected Wednesday. Five days later comes the day set by Haiti's 1987 constitution for presidential transitions of power: The anniversary of ex-dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier's flight into exile — from which he shockingly returned weeks ago.

Haitian and foreign officials are trying to figure out what to do next.

Preval has said he does not want an interim government and asserts his right to remain in office through May 14.

But he is deeply unpopular, especially in urban areas, after years of continued poverty and following his perceived inaction in response to the earthquake. But officials are also concerned about leaving a power vacuum atop the chronically unstable nation.

"Preval doesn't like the Haitian people. One day he said that he would leave. The next day is that he wants to wait for the next president," said Mona Delcine, a 39-year-old cooked food vendor in Port-au-Prince. "If he can leave on Feb. 7 there will be less problems."

But Jean Pierre, a 28-year-old bread seller whose home was destroyed in the earthquake, cautioned patience.

"President Preval should leave after the elections happen, not before, so there won't be any confusion," he said.

Celestin headed Haiti's state-run construction firm. He is widely seen as a continuation of Preval's policies who would be amenable to foreign investment and could keep Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive — former U.S. President Bill Clinton's partner on the interim reconstruction commission — in power.

Manigat is a social conservative who supports reinstituting a security force to supplement Haiti's struggling police. Her husband was briefly president in the late 1980s under a military junta.

Martelly is a populist whose views are closer to the U.S. right wing and who supports fully remaking the banned Armed Forces of Haiti, in part as a means of addressing rampant unemployment.

"As President of Haiti, I will look forward to a full partnership with the United States," Martelly said in an e-mail Monday.


Associated Press writer Evens Sanon contributed to this report