ARCAHAIE, Haiti – Surrounded by waving banners of blue and red, Haitian President Rene Preval pledged Tuesday to step down as scheduled next year, rebuking critics who say he is using the post-earthquake emergency to hold onto power.
Preval told thousands celebrating Flag Day in the seaside town of Arcahaie that he will step down at the end of his term, Feb. 7. The two-term leader sparked protests this month when he adopted a decree that would extend his term by up to three months if a planned presidential election is not held by the end of November.
"This is the last May 18 I will spend with you as president," Preval said. Pledging to pass his office to a successor on the constitutionally mandated day, he added, "I will go and my heart will be calm."
A group of men positioned near the dais let up a supportive cheer. A group of hecklers in the back chanted, "He must go!" — ironically the same message, though with a markedly different tone.
Larger protests were expected but never materialized. Swarms of Haitian police blocked vehicles trying to enter the town, leaving long lines of cars full of Flag Day revelers sweating in the morning sun.
In Port-au-Prince a tire was burned in front of a university, but no larger demonstrations took place.
Arcahaie was an appropriate setting to call for solidarity: Haiti's flag day rivals its Jan. 1 independence day among national festivals, celebrating the unity with which rebel slaves and free people of African descent defeated their French colonial rulers to become the Western Hemisphere's second independent nation and world's first black republic.
The town is where a revolutionary congress adopted the flag in 1803 by taking the French tricolor and ripping out the white part. On Tuesday, red and blue banners declaring "Together let's remake Haiti" were hung along the road from the capital.
School groups and marching bands waved flags and danced in the town's square. Teenagers and 20-somethings left their cracked homes and tents behind, packing buses and pickup trucks for drives to turquoise-water beaches for all-day parties.
Holding elections on time will be difficult. Much of the electoral council's headquarters and records were destroyed in the quake. Officials must also contend with the loss of polling places, countless voter deaths and the displacement of 1.5 million people.
A February election for legislative seats was canceled because of the disaster, leaving Haiti with a third of a parliament for the foreseeable future.
The Organization of American States and United Nations say elections can be held before the end of the year — if needed political decisions are made on time.
On Monday 1,000 people kicked police barriers, shouted insults at Preval and called for the return of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide. A week earlier, at least twice as many protesters flooded Port-au-Prince's national mall.
Associated Press Writer Pierre Richard Luxama contributed to this report.