Observers praise Haiti vote, urge transparent count
PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - The international community gave its blessing on Monday to Haiti's presidential run-off and urged Haitians to calmly wait for the first results due next week to ensure a credible, transparent outcome.
Despite scattered incidents of violence which killed at least two people, voting on Sunday went off peacefully in general in the Caribbean state, one of the world's poorest, where elections are often marred by unrest.
The United Nations, the European Union and observers from the Organisation of American States and the Caribbean Community all hailed the second round run-off vote as a major improvement over the turbulent first round held on November 28.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Haiti on "the successful conduct" of Sunday's elections.
Official preliminary results from the presidential run-off between singer Michel Martelly and former first lady Mirlande Manigat are due on March 31, with definitive results after resolution of legal challenges to be announced on April 16.
The long wait for results has raised fears that impatience and early victory claims in the candidates' camps could trigger street protests and clashes in the volatile country, which is struggling to recover from a devastating earthquake last year.
Haiti's electoral authorities have banned public demonstrations by the candidates' parties and supporters until official results are announced.
The most recent opinion polls have shown shaven-headed Martelly, 50, a political newcomer and star of Haiti's Konpa carnival music who had campaigned on an energetic promise of change, leading by several percentage points over his more experienced rival Manigat, a 70-year-old law professor.
Martelly's Repons Peyizan party said at a news conference that its analysis of vote tally sheets counted so far put its candidate in the lead, but offered no figures. Manigat and her campaign have expressed confidence in her victory.
'FUTURE AT STAKE'
Praising the mostly smooth vote on Sunday, the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Hairti, MINUSTAH, appealed to Manigat and Martelly's camps and their supporters to show patience and restraint awaiting the results. "The future of the country is at stake," it said in a statement.
Ambassador Colin Granderson, head of the OAS/Caricom observer mission to the elections, said improvements made to the electoral process had led to more secure and orderly voting across the country and a better turnout than the first round.
Observers will closely watch the ballot-counting process to try to avoid the widespread fraud allegations that marred the first round in November and triggered days of unrest.
"We'll need to see what happens in the tabulation centre," Granderson said, but added that improvements made on the recommendation of OAS experts should increase transparency.
Calling on Haitians to see the electoral process through to a peaceful and transparent conclusion, EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton said the election was essential for Haiti to "respond to the expectations of the Haitian people and advance the reconstruction and development of the country."
On Monday, the winding streets of Port-au-Prince, many still littered with earthquake rubble, were bustling with traffic and vendors but were calm and free of protests.
Some Haitians seemed cautiously hopeful this election might finally deliver a stable leadership and government to administer billions of dollars in promised earthquake aid.
"We voted so that things could get better for our children when they grow up," said one voter, Darius Jean-Renaud.
There was no apparent disruption either from the return to Haiti of former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who came back on Friday after seven years in exile.
The United States and United Nations had opposed the return before Sunday of the charismatic left-wing populist, Haiti's first freely elected president who was ousted in a 2004 rebellion and still commands a big following in his homeland.
Washington had expressed concern that the return of such a political heavyweight could destabilize the election.
But Aristide kept out of sight over the weekend at his home and he has not openly endorsed any of the candidates.
(Additional reporting by Santiago Limachi; Editing by Todd Eastham)
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