Port-au-Prince: Supporters in Haiti of exiled former president Jean-Bertrand Aristide demonstrated on Wednesday for his return as the country waited nervously to hear who would contest the presidency in a March runoff.
Several hundred pro-Aristide protesters set tires aflame in front of the Foreign Ministry in Port-au-Prince, demanding that Haiti`s government deliver the diplomatic passport Aristide is requesting to be able to come home from exile in South Africa.
"We`ll die for Aristide," and "Aristide must come back," chanted some of the protesters, to the sound of drums.
The Aristide followers demonstrated on the day Haiti`s Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP, is scheduled to announce definitive first-round results from chaotic November 28 elections that triggered riots and fraud allegations in the poor, earthquake-battered Caribbean state.
The council has to decide who will join former first lady Mirlande Manigat in the March 20 runoff -- popular musician Michel Martelly or government-backed Jude Celestin.
Fearing possible violence, many banks, businesses and schools in Port-au-Prince closed early on Wednesday and many people went home from work earlier than usual. The United Nations and its agencies, as well as embassies, warned employees and citizens to be alert for potential unrest.
Manigat had the most first-round votes but not enough to win outright. The United States and United Nations have pressed Haitian authorities to accept an Organization of American States revision of initial vote results that recommends putting Martelly in the runoff in place of Celestin.
OAS experts cited irregularities in preliminary tallies.
Expectation of the possible return of Aristide, a firebrand leftist ex-Roman Catholic priest who retains a passionate following in Haiti, has grown since he said last month he was ready to come home "today, tomorrow, at any time”.
But Washington and Western donors, who are trying to keep the contentious Presidential Election on track after a very confused November 28 first-round vote, are wary that Aristide`s return could inflame Haiti`s fractious political atmosphere.
The Caribbean country, the poorest in the Western Hemisphere, is struggling to recover with foreign help from a devastating 2010 earthquake and is also fighting a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 4,000 people.
"As we await publication of electoral results, we note that what Haiti needs right now is a period of calm, not divisive actions that can only distract from the vital task of forming a legitimate and credible government to help Haiti realise a democratic and more prosperous future," a State Department spokesman in Washington wrote in an e-mailed response to a question about Aristide`s possible return.
`No right to interfere`
The protesters on Wednesday complained of US meddling.
"The US has no right to oppose President Aristide`s return ... they have no right to interfere with Haitian internal affairs," said Ansico Felix, a protest leader.
Haiti`s uncertain outlook has been further clouded by the reappearance of ghosts from its turbulent past. Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier came home from exile in January, running into corruption and human rights charges, and Aristide is preparing his own homecoming.
The United States, United Nations and OAS have weighed in to try to avoid an electoral debacle and more unrest that could threaten billions of dollars of pledged reconstruction aid.
Despite a visit on Sunday by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to emphasise US backing for the OAS results option, the Provisional Electoral Council has given no clear indication it will follow the OAS recommendation.
Celestin, a protégé of outgoing president Rene Preval, has refused to drop out despite pressure from his own INITE party.
But there is some expectation the OAS-recommended Manigat-Martelly lineup for the second round will prevail. Martelly supporters rioted in December when initial results from the electoral council put Celestin in the runoff.