PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Government-backed candidate Jude Celestin and former first lady Mirlande Manigat will advance to a second-round runoff in Haiti's presidential election, officials announced Tuesday as furious protests led by supporters of the third-place contender broke out in the capital.
The results were immediately questioned and matters are far from settled in the race to lead a country wracked by a cholera epidemic and still recovering from a devastating Jan. 12 earthquake.
Much of the concern centered around conflicts between the announced results and those reported recently by a local election monitoring group financed by the European Union – the National Observation Council – which said that Celestin, a protege of outgoing President Rene Preval, would be eliminated.
"The Government of the United States is concerned by the Provisional Electoral Council's announcement of preliminary results ... that are inconsistent with the published results of the National Election Observation Council" as well as U.S. observers and vote counts monitored by domestic and international observers, the U.S. Embassy said in an e-mailed statement.
The Nov. 28 election was plagued by allegations of fraud. Thousands of voters were disenfranchised by confusion on the rolls and there were many reported incidents of ballot-stuffing, violence and intimidation confirmed by international observers.
Officials acknowledged the rolls were both "bloated" and "incomplete," with hundreds of thousands of earthquake dead still registered and many living voters waiting for ID cards. In the last days of counting, tabulators had to sort out clearly fraudulent tally sheets.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon said the problems were worse than originally reported. But the U.N. peacekeepers and the joint Organization of American States-Caribbean Community observer mission said the problems did not invalidate the vote.
The results as announced have popular carnival singer Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly trailing Celestin by about 6,800 votes – less than 1 percent.
The head of the OAS-Caricom mission, Colin Granderson, told The Associated Press before results were announced that officials could consider putting a third candidate in the runoff if the vote is nearly tied.
Martelly had said that he would not accept a spot in a run-off in which Celestin is present. His campaign called a late Tuesday night press conference but later canceled it for security reasons.
An appeals period runs through Dec. 10, with final results expected to be announced around Dec. 20. The run-off is scheduled for Jan. 16.
After results were released Tuesday night, flaming barricades were set up near the Petionville restaurant where the tallies were announced. Martelly supporters threw rocks at people passing nearby and gunshots rang out. An Associated Press journalist was robbed.
"If they don't give us Martelly and Manigat (in the second round), Haiti will be on fire," said a protester, Erick Jean. "We're still living under tents and Celestin wastes money on election posters."
Merchants and residents had braced for rioting by supporters of the losing candidates before the results were announced, covering market stalls and jamming streets to rush home.
Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor, is the wife of former Haitian president Leslie Manigat who served briefly in the late 1980s after a much-criticized election before being deposed by a coup. Her supporters include a powerful senator who organized violent protests in his home department ahead of the first round of voting.
Celestin, a virtual unknown before the election, is the candidate of Preval's Unity party. He is the head of the state-run construction company whose trucks carted bodies and limited amounts of rubble out of the city after the Jan. 12 quake.
His campaign was the best-funded of the group but Preval's inability to jump-start a moribund economy or push forward reconstruction after the massive Jan. 12 earthquake drained his support. Many voters said they would accept "anyone but Celestin," who they equate with the unpopular Preval.
Twelve of the 19 candidates on the ballot joined on Nov. 28 to allege that fraud was used to ensure a Celestin victory and call for the cancellation of the vote. Manigat and Martelly were among them but later reversed position when officials remarked they had a chance to win.
Martelly, a popular carnival singer, was a dark horse who gained widespread credibility in the days before the vote. Thousands of his supporters took the streets of Port-au-Prince and Cap-Haitien while polls were still open, many believing he had won the race.
The much-anticipated results were released by council president Gaillot Dorsainvil and the clear winner in the bid for senate seats was Preval's Inite, or Unity party, which advanced to a run-off in nine races and won a tenth. An independent candidate won the 11th.
Turnout in the presidential race was low: Just over a million people cast accepted ballots out of some 4.7 million registered voters.
Associated Press writer Jacob Kushner contributed to this report