Haiti awaited first-round results Tuesday of presidential elections that will see a new leader tasked with rebuilding a nation gripped by cholera and still recovering from a devastating January earthquake.
According to unofficial estimates, former first lady Mirlande Manigat is comfortably in the lead with 30 percent of the vote, ahead of popular musician Michel Martelly with 25 percent.
The estimates provided by the National Observation Council, a local election monitoring group financed by the European Union, show that ruling party candidate Jude Celestin has only 20 percent and is unlikely to make it through to a presidential run-off if no candidate garners more than 50 percent of the vote.
Electoral officials were due to release preliminary results later Tuesday, but it remained unclear whether the announcement would provide the actual outcome of the polls. Final results have been promised by December 20.
More than a week has already passed since the November 28 presidential and legislative polls and thousands have chosen not to wait for the results, taking to the streets instead to denounce the elections as rigged.
Haiti has been plagued by dictatorships and political upheaval, and several past leaders have fled or been forced into exile, including Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Haiti's first democratically elected president.
President Rene Preval is legally barred from seeking a third term and backed ruling INITE (UNITY) party candidate Celestin, who is widely viewed as his handpicked protege.
A confidential US diplomatic cable dated June 2009 disclosed last week by the WikiLeaks website said Preval tried to "orchestrate" the political transition, fearing he may be forced into exile when he leaves office early next year.
The election campaign was marred by deadly political clashes, alleged assassination attempts and ugly riots in northern Haiti targeting UN peacekeepers accused of bringing in cholera -- which has killed at least 2,000 people and created more havoc after January's massive earthquake that killed 250,000 people.
Election day itself was chaotic -- several polling stations were trashed by mobs and many quake survivors had no identification papers -- but international monitors said the irregularities should not invalidate the polls.
The Organization of American States said Monday its observer mission "is very concerned by the many complaints received by its observers concerning acts of intimidation against candidates who are involved in the current electoral process."
The OAS called on officials "to take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate that they are responsible and to display their leadership qualities by ensuring that calm is maintained and that the established rules are obeyed."
Celestin, 48, had the full use of the INITE party machinery at his disposal for the campaign and his face beamed down from every corner of Port-au-Prince on election posters.
But opinion polls suggested he was not so popular on the street, where Preval, who rose to power as a champion of the poor, has been blamed for a slow response to the quake and a failure to tackle the roots of poverty.
Poll favorite Manigat, a respected 70-year-old academic and longtime opposition leader, is no stranger to the presidential palace, where she served as first lady for a few months in 1988 until her husband Leslie Manigat was ousted from office in a military coup.
Martelly, known to the masses by his stage name "Sweet Micky," is a 49-year-old performer of Haitian kompa music who has a fanatical following among Port-au-Prince's mostly young population.
Whoever does win faces the daunting task of rebuilding a traumatized nation of 10 million that was the poorest in the Americas even before the earthquake.