Preval declared winner of Haiti vote
Thousands of supporters cheer as ex-president avoids runoff
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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (CNN) -- Crowds of supporters celebrated in the streets of Haiti's capital Thursday after the country's electoral council declared former President Rene Preval the winner of last week's presidential election.
Preval had 51.5 percent of the votes counted Thursday after electoral council members decided not to count large numbers of blank ballots. With those votes included in the total number of ballots cast, Preval -- who had a strong lead in early returns -- had fallen short of the majority needed to avoid a runoff.
Preval, who was president from 1996 to 2001, is the only leader since the country's founding in 1803 to have won a democratic election, served a full term and peacefully handed over power.
Both the Organization of American States and the United Nations, which has a 9,000-member peacekeeping mission in Haiti, have announced their support for the electoral council's decision. There was no immediate comment from the president-elect.
At the United Nations, Secretary General Kofi Annan said the electoral council made its decision after negotiations among the government, Preval's supporters and his opponents.
"It was a reasonable way to attempt to resolve a conflict and an impasse that could have led to serious conflict and violence in the society," he said.
OAS Secretary General Jose Miguel Insulza arrived in Port-au-Prince Wednesday to help seek an election settlement and called Thursday's result "a significant step towards building the country's future on democracy," the group said in a written statement.
A U.N. statement said neither Insulza nor U.N. representative Juan Gabriel Valdes "had taken part in the council's discussions leading to the declaration," which the OAS said was reached in a 7-2 vote by the electoral council.
The U.N. statement said Preval supporters in Port-au-Prince began celebrating election results in the early morning, with crowds reaching an estimated 20,000 people by the afternoon.
"I'm so happy, because we have what we were looking for," supporter Elvia Pressoir, 36, told The Associated Press as she held Preval campaign leaflets and waited outside his sister's Port-au-Prince home for him to appear. "With Preval, we'll have security, jobs and life will get back to normal."
The February 7 vote was the first election in Haiti since the 2004 uprising that ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, now in exile in South Africa. Preval, 63, is a longtime Aristide ally, but he distanced himself from the former president during his campaign.
With 96 percent of precincts reporting, his nearest rival, Leslie Manigat, had 12 percent of the vote. Manigat led the impoverished Caribbean country briefly in 1988 before being ousted in a military coup.
Manigat on Thursday accused election officials of breaking the rules to benefit Preval, telling the AP: "We are not going to be sore losers but we are human beings."
An agronomist before entering politics, Preval was previously president between Aristide's two terms, which were cut short by military coups and upheaval. He won the support of much of Haiti's poor by achieving some land reform and running a government seen as relatively free of corruption.
Preval says he wants to extend free elementary education during his second term for everyone in the Caribbean nation, which has been wracked with political instability and corruption. Haiti is one of the poorest, most densely populated and least developed countries in the Western Hemisphere.
The elections had been postponed four times because of continuing unrest across Haiti, particularly in the Port-au-Prince slum of Cite Soleil.
Two Jordanian troops from the U.N. peacekeeping mission died in a January skirmish with armed gang members in Cite Soleil, where support for Aristide remains strong, and six members from the U.N. mission were killed in 2005.
Haiti's wealthy minority opposed Preval, fearing he will allow Aristide -- a leftist former priest whose administration was accused of widespread corruption -- to return.
Preval supporters had claimed fraud when the count indicated a runoff would be needed. They set up roadblocks around Port-au-Prince and stormed a hotel where electoral officials had been staying.
"Preval president!" they chanted. "No Preval, no Haiti!"
Preval himself declared the results flawed on Tuesday, though he urged his supporters to demonstrate peacefully.
U.N. spokesman David Wimhurst said claims of fraud were bolstered by the discovery in a garbage dump of "a large number" of discarded ballots, most of which appeared to have been marked for Preval.
"Naturally, the discovery of this material inflamed passions on the street," Wimhurst said Wednesday
He said the United Nations is likely to keep the peacekeeping mission in Haiti "for many years to come, to help the country not fall back into the abyss that so many times has happened after recent elections."
Under Haitian law, the president serves as head of state, serves a five-year term and appoints a prime minister to lead the government.
Valdes is now prepared to assist with the legislative elections, according to the U.N. statement, which said Preval would be sworn in March 29.
In Washington on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the House Committee on International Relations that Haiti's elections "were largely free and fair" and said "there appears now to be a chance for movement forward."
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