PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haitians wrapped up their election in discord Sunday, with nearly all the major presidential candidates calling for the vote to be voided over fraud and reports that large numbers of voters were turned away across the quake-stricken country.
The day ended with crowds surging through the streets protesting problems with the balloting, while others held impromptu celebrations to cheer for their candidates.
Twelve of the 19 candidates for president endorsed a joint statement denouncing the voting as fraudulent and calling on their supporters to show their anger with demonstrations against the government and the country's Provisional Electoral Council, known as the CEP.
The statement included all of the major contenders but one: Jude Celestin, who is backed by the Unity party of President Rene Preval.
"It is clear that Preval and the CEP were not prepared for elections," said candidate Anne Marie Josette Bijou, who read the statement to a cheering crowd that sang the national anthem and chanted "Arrest Preval!"
The CEP had earlier acknowledged problems with the voter lists but said immediately after the candidates' news conference that the election would continue.
Even so, the united front of so many candidates could cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election, the first since a January earthquake destroyed much of the capital, leaving more than a million people still stranded in crowded tent encampments.
The call for protests could also spark violence, with tensions already high following a series of deadly clashes earlier this month between U.N. peacekeepers and demonstrators who suspected them of bringing a rapidly spreading cholera outbreak.
Thousands of people surged onto the streets of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien, the second-largest city, after polls closed. Police fired tear gas to disperse demonstrators near an electoral office in the Delmas section of the capital but there were no immediate reports of major violence. As darkness fell, there were still thousands of people marching in the streets.
Voters throughout the country showed up at polling stations only to find them closed hours after their scheduled opening, or to be turned away because their names were not on lists. There were also sporadic reports of violence and intimidation.
Observers from dozens of parties crowded voting areas and furious voters were turned away from stations where poll workers could not find their names on lists. "I don't know if I'm going to come back later. If I come back later it might not be safe. That's why people vote early," said Ricardo Magloire, a Cap Haitien radio journalist whose polling station at a Catholic school was still not taking ballots after people had waited more than an hour.
Ninety-six contenders were competing for 11 Senate seats and more than 800 more were seeking to fill the 99-seat lower house.
But the focus is on the presidential contest. Nineteen candidates were on the ballot. The victor gets a five-year term at the helm of a disastrous economy and leadership of an increasingly angry and suffering population worn down by decades of poverty, the earthquake, a recent hurricane and now a cholera epidemic that has killed more than 1,600 people.
Yet there is an unprecedented opportunity: The new president will oversee the largest capital spending spree in Haiti's history, the $10 billion pledged in foreign reconstruction aid after the quake. Very little of the money has been delivered so far, as many donor nations are waiting to see who will take over the government.