PORT-AU-PRINCE International observers on Monday cautiously endorsed Haiti's troubled elections, saying they could be considered valid despite "irregularities" that generated popular protests and charges of fraud.
The problems detected included some voter manipulation, acts of violence and intimidation, a "toxic atmosphere" created by fraud allegations and cases of voters not being able to find where to cast their ballots, the joint observer mission from the Organization of American States/Caribbean Community said.
"The joint mission does not believe that these irregularities, serious as some were, necessarily invalidated the process," Ambassador Colin Granderson, head of the OAS/Caricom mission, told a news conference in Port-au-Prince.
The assessment of his 118-member team, which observed Sunday's elections across Haiti, gave some relief to an international community anxious to see the polls produce a stable, legitimate government for the earthquake-ravaged Caribbean nation.
Foreign donors see this as crucial for administering billions of dollars of funds pledged to help the Western Hemisphere's poorest state recover from a devastating January 12 earthquake that killed more than 250,000 people.
MANY CONTENDERS CRY FRAUD
An earlier declaration by Haiti's electoral authorities that the polls were largely a success flew in the face of widespread popular anger over voting problems and denunciation of "massive fraud" by 12 of the 18 presidential contenders.
But musician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, one of the election frontrunners who had called with the others on Sunday for the polls to be annulled, backed away from this position on Monday, saying he believed the votes should be counted.
Another frontrunner, opposition matriarch Mirlande Manigat, also softened her call for annulment, saying she would participate in a run-off if the vote count showed her among the two candidates with the most votes.
The varied field of presidential candidates raised the likelihood of a deciding second round on January 16.
Granderson of the OAS/Caricom observer mission criticized the public fraud denunciation as "hasty and regrettable".
Martelly, whose supporters had been among the most active in protesting the elections on Sunday, explained his change of position by saying his candidacy had been leading in polling stations where there had not been fraud.
"I want the electoral council, President (Rene) Preval and the international community to respect the voice of the population," he told reporters in Port-au-Prince.
Martelly, whose call for the votes to be counted was backed by fellow musician and hip-hop star Wyclef Jean, appealed for his supporters to remain calm.
Before Martelly and Manigat softened their positions, the candidates' joint fraud denunciation had left Jude Celestin, the candidate of outgoing president Preval's Inite (Unity) coalition, virtually alone among the presidential contenders in upholding the legitimacy of the polls.
Martelly, Celestin and Manigat had been leading the field of the 18 presidential candidates, according to opinion polls.
In the heart of the sprawling capital, expectation, uncertainly and fears of unrest were running high. The city's rubble-strewn streets are now also littered with electoral posters and, in some areas, unused ballot papers.
Around 100 anti-election protesters marched near the quake-wrecked presidential palace. Haitian riot police stood by and U.N. peacekeepers in armored vehicles were also on hand.
Sunday saw a spate of anti-election protests in the capital involving thousands and in at least two other cities.
Wyclef Jean, whose own bid to run for the Haitian presidency was rejected by electoral authorities in August, said violence could erupt if election officials do not guarantee that all votes will be fairly counted.
"POTENTIALLY EXPLOSIVE DILEMMA"
"We don't really understand what's going on with this election because we're still waiting for the result," said one voter, Fritz Etienne.
Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council has said it may take up to a week to announce preliminary official results.
The troubled elections went ahead with solid United Nations support despite a raging six-week-old cholera epidemic that has killed some 2,000 people and sickened thousands, piling more misery on a population already traumatized by the earthquake.
Endorsement of the troubled vote and its eventual results by the international community could risk inflaming opposition and popular anger. But repudiating the election could undermine Preval's outgoing government, which organized it, and threaten the legitimacy of a new administration.
"This is a big, potentially explosive dilemma," said Markus Shultze-Kraft, head of the governance team at the Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.
The Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research called Sunday's elections in Haiti "an obvious farce from start to finish," saying one of its analysts had seen "numerous irregularities" including apparent ballot stuffing.
"The international community should reject these elections," Mark Weisbrot, the center's co-director, said in a statement.
In his upbeat assessment of Sunday's polls, the electoral council's president, Gaillot Dorsainvil, said Haiti had "successfully completed" elections at the vast majority of the country's voting centers. He acknowledged "some problems" and said they were being investigated.
(Additional reporting by Joseph Guyler Delva and Allyn Gaestel; Editing by John O'Callaghan)