PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti's government-backed candidate will withdraw from the presidential race, a party colleague said on Tuesday, opening the way for a solution to a destabilizing electoral dispute in the Caribbean nation.
The withdrawal of Jude Celestin, candidate for the ruling INITE coalition of outgoing Haitian President Rene Preval, would allow opposition candidate and popular musician Michel Martelly to move into a second-round run-off vote.
This was the recommendation advanced, with emphatic backing and pressure from the United Nations and western donors, by a team of experts from the Organization of American States, who challenged preliminary results from the chaotic November 28 elections that put Celestin, not Martelly, in the run-off.
The OAS team cited vote tallying "irregularities."
Martelly's supporters rioted against the initial results last month and there were fears the electoral dispute would plunge Haiti back into political turmoil a year after a devastating earthquake. More unrest would also put at risk donor aid for the Western Hemisphere's poorest state.
"The candidate for our party INITE, Jude Celestin, will withdraw from the presidential race to facilitate a solution to the electoral crisis," Senator Franky Exius, a member of the ruling coalition, told Reuters.
Preval, INITE and Haiti's electoral authorities came under intense international pressure in recent weeks to accept the OAS report, which put Martelly ahead of Celestin by mere fractions of a percentage point.
In its contested December 7 preliminary results from the U.N.-backed elections, Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council put Celestin ahead of Martelly by an equally tiny margin.
With Celestin out, Martelly would square off in a decisive second-round vote against opposition matriarch Mirlande Manigat, whom the OAS experts confirmed as the winner of the first round, although she did not gain enough votes to win outright.
"INHERENTLY FLAWED ELECTION"
The electoral council is considering the OAS report and is due to give definitive election results at the end of January.
"Given the circumstances, we think this is the best decision to take," Exius said of the planned withdrawal of Celestin, which followed meetings within INITE and Preval.
INITE lawmakers, who appear poised to win a dominant parliamentary presence in the legislative elections, had apparently been swayed by the heavy international pressure.
The United States, a big contributor of aid for Haiti's reconstruction, warned that this support could be at risk if the OAS recommendation was not heeded.
Applying further leverage, Washington, which is helping to fund the elections, had also revoked the U.S. entry visas of several Haitians linked to INITE and Celestin's campaign.
This pressure has drawn some criticism. "This is a sad day for Haitian democracy ... the United States and its allies are trying to reverse the results of an election and decide who can be president of Haiti," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.
"It will do nothing to fix an inherently flawed election that excluded several parties, and had the lowest voter participation for a presidential election in the Western Hemisphere in over 60 years," he added in a statement.
The center argues that widespread irregularities in the Haitian election make it impossible to determine who should advance to a second round.
Weisbrot has called for completely new elections to be held, an option ruled out by the OAS experts and Washington.
The uncertainty created by the elections impasse as Haiti struggles to recover from last year's crippling earthquake, has been intensified by the surprise return home from exile of former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier.
Duvalier, 59, faces charges of corruption and human rights abuses committed during his 1971-1986 rule. Another exiled former president, firebrand ex-priest Jean-Bertrand Aristide, has said he also wants to come home.