|The pullout of the government-backed candidate has won praise from foreign powers [GALLO/GETTY]
Haiti's fraud-tainted ruling party candidate is out of the presidential race.
The country's Provisional Electoral Council (CEP) said on Thursday that former first lady Mirlande Manigat and musician Michel "Sweet Mickey" Martelly were the two top finishers of the chaotic November 28 vote, ahead of government technocrat Jude Celestin.
The decision to reverse the results of disputed first round polls in November was met with calm on the streets of the quake-hit Caribbean nation, which has endured decades of political upheaval, dictatorship and bloodshed.
The two leaders would contest a run-off set for March 20 to replace outgoing President Rene Preval.
Preval's mandate formally ends on Monday, but he has parliament approval to stay on if necessary until May 14 so he can hand over to an elected successor.
A beaming Martelly said after the runoff announcement that justice had been done. “I don't think (foreign governments) have decided the political future of Haiti. I think that the support that they have brought to Haiti matches the people's will toward change,'' he said at a news conference.
"This is a victory for the people," said Martelly. "We're here to tell the world that a new day has dawned on Haiti, one that brings hope and change."
The reversal came after international monitors from the Organization of American States (OAS) found significant vote rigging and fraud in favor of Celestin.
After Martelly supporters rioted in December against these initial results, the United Nations, United States and other western donor governments had piled pressure on Haiti's leaders and electoral authorities to adopt the OAS recommendation.
UN, US welcome decision
The United States and the United Nations welcomed a decision they hope will clear the way for a more stable political climate and allow international aid efforts to be stepped up.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also welcomed the first-round results, saying they opened the way to move forward with the electoral process.
"It is of paramount importance for Haiti to have a new democratically elected government to continue to tackle the pressing issues of recovery," a spokesperson for the U.N. leader said.
"It's a good day in Haiti again," the US ambassador to Haiti, Kenneth Merten, told reporters.
But there were those who saw US meddling.
"What a disgrace to the United States government: the richest country in the world has forced one of the poorest to change the results of its presidential election, literally under the threat of starvation. ... This attempt to impose an illegitimate government on Haiti will backfire," said Mark Weisbrot, co-director of the Washington-based Center for Economic Policy and Research.
US Rep Maxine Waters said the US, Canada and France “used (their) tremendous power and influence to determine the outcome of the first round'' and denied Haitians “the opportunity to express their will.''
Handover of power
There were fears the December unrest could escalate and derail the elections, threatening the handover of power by Preval and putting at risk billions of dollars of aid pledged to help the poor Caribbean nation recover from a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Manigat, a 70-year-old longtime opposition figure angling to become Haiti's first female president, was aware that she could not afford to underestimate her opponent due to his popularity with the country's many young voters.
It does not matter to them that he "has no skills, is new, is inexperienced in politics and everything. They will vote for Sweet Micky," Manigat said, using the singer's stage name.
The second round, originally slated for January, is now expected March 20 with campaigning set to begin February 17. Final results - the naming of Haiti's next president - is not foreseen until April 16.
Adding to the already nervous political atmosphere is the possible return of ousted former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who has asked the government for a diplomatic passport so he can come home from exile in South Africa.
The leftist ex-Roman Catholic priest retains a passionate following in Haiti. He became Haiti's first freely elected president in 1990 before being ousted by an armed revolt in 2004.
Haiti's uncertain outlook has been further clouded by the reappearance of ghosts from its turbulent past. Former dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier came home from exile in January, running into corruption and human rights charges.
Ordinary Haitians were sanguine about whether the first-round results could bring stability. "We take what they give us. Now I hope life can continue and we can live in peace," said Jonaldo St Jules, 20.
Haiti is still reeling from the earthquake that killed more than 220,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless, and has been battling a cholera epidemic that has sickened 200,000 people and killed more than 4,100 since November.