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 excluding 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 of the chaotic November 28 vote, ahead of government technocrat Jude Celestin.
The two candidates would contest a runoff set for March 20 to replace outgoing President Rene Preval.
Preval's mandate formally ends on Monday, but he has parliamentary approval to stay on until May 14 if necessary so he can hand over to an elected successor.
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 Organisation 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, did not gain enough votes to win outright in the first round. No percentages, just the positions, were immediately 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.
"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 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.
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.
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.
"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, 42, who has an auto parts business.
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 . ... This attempt to impose an illegitimate government on Haiti will backfire," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Centre for Economic Policy and Research.
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 firebrand 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.
Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier came home from exile in January, running into corruption and human rights charges.
Additional reporting by Allyn Gaestel; Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Peter Cooney