Votes counted to find out who will contest presidency

 

Haitians waited nervously last night for electoral authorities to announce who will contest March's scheduled run-off election for the presidency, amid growing criticism of a process, which has already sparked widespread allegations of corruption and voter fraud.

Mirlande Manigat, the country's former first lady, was expected to occupy one of the two spots on the ballot, but it was unclear whether the other would be taken by Jude Celestin, the preferred candidate of current President René Préval, or his independent rival, a singer called Michel Martelly.

The decision could inflame tensions in a historically volatile country whose population has been on edge since the earthquake in January last year, which killed between 200,000 and 300,000 people and left 1.5 million homeless.

Riots greeted the announcement of preliminary results from the first round of voting in November, which indicated that the two candidates going to the final round would be Ms Manigat and Mr Celestin. Supporters of Mr Martelly took to the streets saying that he had been fraudulently elbowed out of contention by vote rigging.

Those claims were supported by the international community, led by the Organisation of American States, which threatened to withdraw funding from Haiti unless Mr Martelly was allowed to replace Mr Celestin on the ballot paper for the run-off election due in March.

In what appeared to be a concession to those concerns, Mr Préval's Inite party announced last week that it would be withdrawing its candidate from the race. But Mr Celestin has not yet signed resignation papers, meaning that the electoral authorities may be legally obliged to allow him to remain on the ballot.

Several aid organisations and pressure groups now believe that the only way to install a new leader whose election reflects the will of the Haitian people is to scrap the current electoral process and start over. The new election should involve the left-leaning Fanmi Lavalas, they say; the organisation enjoys widespread support among poorer Haitians but was controversially barred from November's poll due to alleged irregularities in the paperwork it submitted to authorities.

Further complicating the picture has been the return to Port-au-Prince of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier, who is charged with a range of abuses during his reign, in a case which threatens to re-open old wounds. Another ex-president, the former Fanmi Lavalas ruler Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was kicked out in what supporters believe to be a American-backed coup in 2004, is also attempting to stage a return from exile.

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