PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Jubilant Haitians danced in the streets to celebrate Rene Preval's victory in a bitter election marred by fraud charges, calling on the soft-spoken former agronomist to bring jobs and security to their strife-torn nation.
It's a tall order for Preval, who inherits a country where heavily armed street gangs wage daily gunfights with U.N. peacekeepers and seething mistrust divides the rich and poor.
Preval remained shuttered in his sister's house in the capital of Port-au-Prince late Thursday, hours after electoral and government officials declared him the winner of the Feb. 7 elections. The decision, following a days-long, roller-coaster vote count, eased the threat of rioting by Preval's supporters.
"We have won, we thank God and the population," Preval told the Haitian Press Agency in his only public statement. "We will now fight for Parliament."
Preval, who led Haiti from 1996 to 2001, became the volatile country's first elected president ever to finish his term. With the country in worse shape than he left it five years ago, Preval has tried to dampen expectations in his few public statements, saying his government would not be able to immediately fix Haiti's problems.
"I think that Mr. Preval has a very crucial role in inviting Haitians to participate in the future of the country and to have an open dialogue with all sectors," said U.N. special envoy to Haiti, Juan Gabriel Valdes.
Hope soared among Haitians who danced in the streets as word spread that Preval, 63, won enough votes to avoid a runoff with second-place finisher Leslie Manigat. His victory was cemented early Thursday when elections officials decided to divide ballots that were left blank among all candidates in proportion to the votes they'd received.
"I'm so happy, because we have what we were looking for," said Elvia Pressoir, 36, as she waited for Preval to appear outside his sister's house. "With Preval, we'll have security, jobs and life will get back to normal."
Exultant Haitians waved ripped tree branches, which some say is a Voodoo gesture to sweep away bad spirits.
"Now we have hope," said Dabual Jean, a 24-year-old who sells fruit on the street in the capital. "The country is upside down. With Preval, hopefully we'll get on the right path."
But that won't come easy in Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere with problems ranging from massive unemployment to near-total rural deforestation. Most Haitians live on less than $2 per day and have no running water or access to doctors.
Preval, the son of a former government official, has vowed to crack down on hardened criminals.
He has been vague on whether he would welcome back Jean-Bertrand Aristide, his former mentor who is in exile in South Africa. The former slum priest fled Haiti as the United States withdrew support for his government amid an armed rebellion in 2004 and accusations that he was corrupt and had encouraged his supporters to attack his opponents.
The two former presidents have drifted apart in recent years.
The Bush administration considers a possible return of Aristide — the only Haitian leader, other than Preval, to be popularly elected — to be a destabilizing factor, and has hinted that he should remain in exile.
The U.S. State Department congratulated Preval on his win Thursday, saying Washington looked forward to working with his government.
Preval had remained a hair short of an outright majority after 96 percent of the vote was tabulated. Haitian officials then decided to divide the 85,000 blank ballots cast among the candidates in proportion to the percentage they had already achieved — giving Preval just over 51 percent, said Michel Brunache, chief of Cabinet for interim President Boniface Alexandre.
The decision appears to have averted chaos in Haiti, where masses of Preval supporters had protested in the streets, saying the elections were being rigged to deny him a first-round victory.
The allegations gained weight with the discovery of thousands of ballots and other election material in a garbage dump.
Preval had vowed to challenge the results if officials insisted on a runoff.
Brunache said redistributing the blank ballots was justified because the interim Haitian government also suspected fraud.
Since last Tuesday, the government was looking for a solution out of the crisis," he told The Associated Press. "It was obvious that the people had massively made a choice, and that we needed to make sure that choice was respected."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said the ballot redistribution was "a reasonable way to attempt to resolve a conflict, an impasse that could have led to conflict and violence."
But Manigat accused election officials of breaking the rules to give Preval a first-round victory.
"We are not going to be sore losers but we are human beings," Manigat told reporters. He would not say if he would register a formal complaint.