PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Haitians began celebrating in the street Thursday as word quickly spread that Rene Preval, a former president who is hugely popular among the poor, was declared the winner of the presidential election overnight.
Leslie Manigat, also a former president who came in second with about 12 percent of the vote, according to a count of 90 percent of ballots, accused election officials of breaking the rules to give Preval a first-round victory instead of forcing the two into a runoff.
"We are not going to be sore losers but we are human beings," Manigat told reporters. "The right of a second round of elections is inscribed in the election rules.
Preval had been just shy of the 50 percent margin needed to avoid a runoff next month. Under an agreement reached overnight between election and government officials, some of the 85,000 blank ballots cast in the Feb. 7 election were subtracted from the total number of votes counted, giving Preval a majority, said Michel Brunache, chief of Cabinet for interim President Boniface Alexandre.
"The right to a second round was manipulated," Manigat said. He would not say if he would register a formal complaint.
There was celebrating in the streets among backers of Preval, who enjoys huge popularity among the poor.
"I'm so happy, because we have what we were looking for," said Elvia Pressoir, 36, who clutched Preval campaign leaflets as she waited outside the gate of Preval's sister's house for him to appear. "With Preval, we'll have security, jobs and life will get back to normal."
A group of celebrants jubilantly marched past the house, where journalists began gathering.
The agreement capped a dramatic nine days since Haitians turned out in droves for an election seen as crucial to avoiding a political and economic meltdown in the destitute Caribbean nation. Gangs have gone on kidnapping sprees and factories have closed for lack of security in the two years since former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide's ouster.
Preval was declared the winner about 1:30 a.m. Thursday by the interim government and electoral council, staving off a potential crisis over the disputed vote in the Western Hemisphere's poorest country. The breakthrough followed days of protests by Preval supporters who alleged the elections were stolen.
"We acknowledge the final decision of the electoral council and salute the election of Mr. Rene Preval as president of the Republic of Haiti," Prime Minister Gerard Latortue told The Associated Press in a phone interview after the agreement was signed.
Brunache said the agreement was signed by members of the electoral council and several government ministers, came during a late night meeting of government and election officials in the electoral council offices.
The blank votes represented 4 percent of the estimated 2.2 million ballots cast. By removing some of the blank ballots from the total count, Preval's share of the vote rose from 49.76 percent to 51.15 percent, Brunache said.
"We have reached a solution to the problem," said Max Mathurin, president of the Provisional Electoral Council. "We feel a huge satisfaction at having liberated the country from a truly difficult situation."
Some 7,300 U.N. troops and 1,750 international police are in the country under Brazilian command, helping maintain order. Voters almost overwhelmed poll workers on election day. When returns were slow in coming, suspicion built that the vote count was being rigged.
At least one Preval supporter died in massive street protests against alleged fraud, though the demonstrations were largely peaceful.
Preval, a former president who was once allied with Aristide and shares the ousted leaders popular following among Haiti's majority poor, had vowed to challenge the results if officials insisted on holding a March runoff.
On Tuesday, Haitian TV reported the discovery of ballots discarded in a garbage dump near the capital. AP reporters visited the site Wednesday and saw thousands of ballots, some marked for Preval, deep in the dump along with a vote tally sheet and four bags meant to carry returns from the election.
The discovery troubled U.N. officials because the bags were not supposed to be thrown out. U.N. official Catherine Sung, an electoral adviser at the vote tabulation center, told the AP the signed bags were meant to contain annulled and blank votes.
Later in the day, the U.N. mission in Haiti issued a statement urging "the Haitian authorities to investigate fully and prosecute anyone found guilty of this apparent grave breach of the electoral process."
Besides the blank votes, about 125,000 ballots had also been declared invalid because of irregularities, further fueling suspicions of fraud.
The son of a former government official, Preval has vowed to crack down on hardened criminals. The shy, soft-spoken candidate has been coy, though, on whether he would welcome back Aristide, who is in exile in South Africa.
The election was billed as a move to restore democracy in the nation of 8 million, but it is a daunting task. With decades of brain drain, capital flight and crippling judicial, security, health and corruption problems, Haiti needs more than a quick electoral fix, experts say.
Once the richest colony in the Americas, Haiti has been impoverished since the world's only successful slave rebellion forced out French colonizers and a series of corrupt military and civilian dictators began ruling the country in 1804.
Today, most Haitians are unemployed or get by on odd jobs. The majority live in the deforested countryside with no electricity, clean drinking water or health care.