PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Earthquake-hit Haiti's political future hung in the balance on Monday after Sunday's turbulent elections were roiled by popular protests and repudiated by most of the presidential candidates.
The international community faces a difficult decision of whether to endorse the voting on Sunday that was at best confused and at worst flawed. This could complicate hopes of achieving a stable, legitimate government to lead the Caribbean country's recovery from a devastating January 12 earthquake.
A declaration by local electoral authorities that the polls had been largely a success flew in the face of widespread popular anger over voting problems and a public denunciation of "massive fraud" by 12 of the 18 presidential contenders.
At least two more presidential candidates joined the denunciation on Monday, local radio reported.
But musician Michel "Sweet Micky" Martelly, one of the election front-runners 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.
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's reversal, 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 70-year-old opposition matriarch Mirlande Manigat had been leading the field of the 18 presidential candidates, according to opinion polls.
Even before the fraud charges, the lack of a clear favorite increased the likelihood of the contest going to a January 16 runoff between the two top vote-winners.
In the center of the sprawling capital Port-au-Prince, 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 even 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 that violence could erupt if election officials do not guarantee that all votes be fairly counted.
"We don't really understand what's going on with this election because we're still waiting for the result," one local voter, Fritz Etienne, said.
Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) 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 in the Western Hemisphere's poorest state, piling more misery on a nation where more than 250,000 people were killed in the earthquake.
The U.N. mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) and an Organization of American States/Caribbean Community electoral observer mission there have said they are gathering information about Sunday's contentious polls to be able to make an assessment.
Endorsing the troubled vote and its eventual results could risk inflaming opposition and popular anger. 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 British-based Institute of Development Studies at the University of Sussex.
"Haiti's government and its international friends needed the elections to choose a legitimate post-quake government to lead the reconstruction," he told Reuters.
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 in Haiti 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. "Otherwise, Haiti could be left with a government that is widely seen as illegitimate," Weisbrot added.
Weisbrot called for the Provisional Electoral Council (CEP), which has been widely accused of bias toward Preval and his candidate Celestin, to be replaced so new elections could be held that could have credibility in the eyes of all voters.
In his upbeat assessment of Sunday's polls, CEP President Gaillot Dorsainvil said the country 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 Will Dunham