PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti on Thursday heeded foreign pressure and amended the results of its November first-round election, setting up a presidential runoff that excludes a government-backed candidate hit by fraud allegations.
The country's Provisional Electoral Council, or CEP, said former first lady Mirlande Manigat and musician Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly were the two top finishers in the chaotic November 28 vote, ahead of government technocrat Jude Celestin.
The two candidates will contest a runoff set for March 20 to replace outgoing President Rene Preval.
The definitive CEP results, which reversed a preliminary count that had placed Celestin second and in the runoff, averted a showdown between Haiti's government and electoral officials and the Organization of American States and Western donors including the United States.
They were in line with a revision carried out by OAS experts, who, addressing allegations of widespread fraud and irregularities in the first-round vote tallies, recommended Martelly go through to the runoff instead of Celestin,
Opposition matriarch Manigat, 70, the wife of Leslie Manigat, who was president for a few months in 1988, did not gain enough votes to win outright in the first round. No percentages, just the positions, were announced on Thursday.
After Martelly supporters rioted in December against the initial results, the United Nations, United States and other Western donor governments pressured Haiti's leaders and electoral authorities to adopt the OAS recommendation.
There had been fears the December unrest could escalate and derail the elections, threatening the transfer of power by Preval and putting at risk billions of dollars of aid pledged to help the poor Caribbean nation recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
"Today is not a gift, we fought for it," Martelly told a news conference where he welcomed the CEP's final results.
"Finally, the electoral council heard the voice of the population. The results matched the will of the Haitian people who voted for Manigat and Martelly," he said.
But Martelly, 49, added the CEP was "not credible" and that his campaign would soon lay out "what exact steps need to be taken" to fix that before the runoff.
Manigat congratulated Martelly and said she hoped the runoff campaign "will be held in an atmosphere of civility, that the focus will be put on the issues that matter to the Haitian people."
The national coordinator for Celestin's Inite party, Joseph Lambert, said the party accepted Thursday's results and would turn its attention toward winning a majority in Parliament.
The U.S. Embassy said it was ready to assist Haiti in promoting "a free and fair electoral process" and reducing the fraud and irregularities that plagued the first round.
"I'm very happy about this decision. I was very anxious because I didn't know what was going to happen if Martelly did not get into the runoff. Now I can open my business without fear," said Jonel Joseph, who has an auto parts business.
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U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the first-round results, saying they opened the way to move forward with the electoral process.
But there were those who saw U.S. meddling.
"What a disgrace to the United States government: the richest country in the world has forced one of the poorest to change the results of its presidential election, literally under the threat of starvation," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic Policy and Research in Washington.
The Western Hemisphere's poorest state, which lost more than 300,000 people in the earthquake, is also grappling with a deadly cholera epidemic hampering reconstruction efforts.
Adding to the nervous political atmosphere is the possible return of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has asked the government for a diplomatic passport so he can come home from exile in South Africa. The leftist ex-Roman Catholic priest retains a passionate following in Haiti. He became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990 and was ousted by an armed revolt in 2004.
Exiled former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier returned last month, running into corruption and human rights charges.
(Additional reporting by Allyn Gaestel; Writing by Pascal Fletcher)