PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti called off its presidential election on Friday, two days before it was due, over concerns of escalating violence sparked by the opposition candidate's refusal to take part in a process he said was riddled with fraud.
Pierre Louis Opont, president of Haiti's electoral council, said the runoff vote was being pushed back for security reasons. But he did not say when the election, already postponed twice before, would be rescheduled.
The announcement led to jubilation from demonstrators marching to oppose the election. They danced on the streets of the capital Port-au-Prince, but the mood quickly darkened. Gunshots were fired as protesters clashed with police.
The postponement is nevertheless expected to ease unrest after days of protests in the deeply impoverished country of about 10 million people, at pains to rebuild from a devastating earthquake six years ago and to emerge from decades of political dysfunction.
Several western nations, fearing a new era of instability in the Caribbean nation, have been assisting Haiti in its election preparations. The U.S. government alone has chipped in $30 million.
But opposition candidate Jude Celestin said last week he would not take part in the election, alleging a first round vote in October was rigged to favor the ruling party candidate.
"The fact that the electoral council was forced to give up the electoral farce is a victory for the Haitian people," said Jean-Charles Moise, another opposition candidate who said fraud led to his first-round defeat.
Hamstrung with weak institutions, Haiti has struggled to build a stable democracy since the overthrow of the 1957-1986 dictatorship of the Duvalier family and ensuing military coups and election fraud.
GOVERNMENT CONVENES ON SECURITY
The government held an unscheduled cabinet meeting to plan measures to "guarantee public order and the security of lives and property," the prime minister's office said in statement without giving details.
In a statement explaining the postponement, the election commission reported that seven election offices and an official's home had been torched and several other offices were attacked, including by armed men.
On Friday, thousands marched in the capital for the third time this week. Police fired at a group attacking a man who appeared to have shot at them. The man lay bleeding profusely, but it was unclear how he was injured.
Protesters set fire to at least one car. Burning tires billowed black smoke directly below a giant poster of ruling party candidate Jovenel Moise. A man stabbed another poster of Moise with a metal pole.
"The direction (outgoing President Michel) Martelly has taken the country is no good," said Rolando Joilcoeui, a community worker standing among the crowds.
"We've said 'no' to that regime. The election was a fraud."
Swiss-trained engineer Celestin said the government has not remedied cheating in the first round, and called the plans for the second round vote "a farce."
Celestin was second in a field of 54 candidates in the October election. He came in almost eight percentage points behind Moise, a banana-exporter and political newcomer running on a platform to modernize agriculture and water management in the flood and drought-prone nation.
Moise told Reuters earlier on Friday the vote represented "the will of the people" even if he was the only candidate fully participating.
After the postponement, members of Moise's campaign team sat grim-faced at a city hotel. Asked what happens next, one said: "That's the million dollar question."
Haiti's newly appointed senators voted almost unanimously to postpone the vote earlier this week, and the Catholic church, business groups and local election observers warned an election under such conditions would not be credible.
In a statement from the United Nations, the "core group" of countries aiding Haiti that include Brazil, France and the United States among others, said they deplored the violence and reiterated "support for the conclusion of an inclusive and equitable electoral process."
U.S. Republican presidential candidate, Senator Marco Rubio from Florida, told Reuters Haitimust lay out "a clear timeline" for a democratic election.
Only about a quarter of Haiti's 5.8 million registered voters cast their ballots in the first round.
Local observers say a loophole meant thousands of booth watchers employed by parties were able to vote more than once. The Organization of American States also signaled the poll watchers as a major source of irregularities.
That anomaly has been largely fixed.
Formerly a singer known as Sweet Micky famous for performances on carnival floats, Martelly is constitutionally required to leave office by Feb. 7, when the annual celebration starts this year.
However, his five-year term only ends in May, leaving some flexibility, with proposals including a March election.
The opposition groups want an interim government set up on Feb. 7 to oversee a new election.
After months of upheaval that started with violence and ballot stuffing in an August vote for lawmakers, some Haitians see the delay as a recipe for more uncertainty.
"Everything has come to a standstill because of the elections," said out-of-work construction laborer Rodrigue Pierre, holding a hammer on the edge of a hillside cinder-block slum in Port-au-Prince. "We just want a new president."
(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva and Andres Martinez Casares in Haiti and Louis Charbonneau in New York; Editing by Simon Gardner, Toni Reinhold and Mary Milliken)