Rene Preval has taken a strong lead in Haiti's presidential election, with most of the first votes counted going to the former president who is seen as a champion of the poor.

Preval, the former protege of deposed President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, won 61.5 percent of 282,327 votes counted, Haiti's electoral council said. It refused to say what percentage of the total votes cast these figures represented. According to the United Nations, a majority of Haiti's 3.5 million eligible voters cast ballots.

The council said of the next two highest vote getters, Leslie Manigat had 13.4 percent and Charles Henri Baker had 6.1 percent.

There was no immediate reaction from the candidates, and the streets of Port-au-Prince were quiet after the results were announced.

Vote counting was to resume on Friday, but election authorities said it might be Saturday until enough ballots are counted to draw conclusions about the race.

Manigat, however, said early returns tallied by his party members showed Preval might win a majority of votes that would give him outright victory.

If the winning candidate lacks a majority of votes, he and the second-place finisher would go against each other in a March runoff.

"There is a tiny chance that we will have a second round, but I fear Preval has made a clean sweep of the votes," Manigat said.

Standing on the porch of his family home in Marmelade, a rural northern town, Preval said he was marking time and catching up on sleep until official results are out. Election authorities said that might not be until late Friday or Saturday.

"My work is over," Preval told The Associated Press. "I'm waiting. It's boring."

His campaigning is over unless he fails to win a majority and must go to a second-round election in March against the other top vote-getter. But Preval faces monumental tasks if he wins the presidency of this impoverished nation.

Most Haitians can't read or write, and subsist on about a dollar a day. A wave of kidnappings by heavily armed gangs has swept the capital. Amid the insecurity, assembly plants are closing, causing the losses of thousands of jobs. Donor nations are hesitant to contribute money because of a legacy of government corruption.

Preval's own tenure as president from 1996-2001 was less than stellar. His efforts at agrarian reform failed because landless peasants who received land couldn't live on the small amount they were given. He clashed with parliament over the legitimacy of the legislators who won contested elections. Human rights advocates accused him of interfering in the judicial system and of politicizing the police force.

But poor Haitians remember that Preval tried to help them. Even the smaller efforts are remembered by those whose plight was ignored by a series of governments and dictatorships.

"He built the big marketplace downtown. He fixed it so that the vendors could get out of the mud," said Yves Valea, a 70-year-old street sweeper.

In Cite Soleil, a slum ruled by gangs that have grown stronger since a rebellion ousted Aristide two years ago, a dozen jobless youths stood idle outside decrepit storefronts plastered with Preval campaign posters. Some of the young men shouted: "Long live Preval!"

Israel Privil, a 40-year-old shoe repairman standing nearby, proudly pointed to his ink-stained thumb, proof he had voted on Tuesday.

"I voted for Preval because I was without hope," he said. "When Preval was in power, there were agricultural jobs and more programs for the peasants. We hope that if he becomes president he'll continue that work."

Preval pictures himself as a reluctant candidate.

When he stepped down after serving out his five-year term — the only Haitian president to complete his term in office — Preval went to live in his grandmother's house in Marmelade, where he devoted himself to local development projects. He said he decided to run for the presidency after 1,000 peasants from all over the country came to see him in July and urged him to run.

Preval stood for years in the shadow of Aristide, his dominating predecessor. Aristide, who referred to Preval as his "twin," was ousted amid accusations he ordered gangsters to attack opponents and pocketed millions of dollars.

Preval made a point of saying in a recent interview that he has split with Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa.

"If I'm his 'twin,' we do not have the same mother," Preval told the AP. Preval pointed out that nothing can legally prevent Aristide from returning to Haiti, but added that he may have to face a trial.

Preval would have a fresh start in relations with Washington, said Robert Fatton, a political science professor at the University of Virginia.

"When (Preval) was president, the U.S. did not necessarily think he was a bad man, but they considered he had his hands tied up by Aristide," Fatton said in a telephone interview. "The U.S. now believes Preval is his own man."