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Demonstrators hold pictures of Haiti's ousted President Jean Bertrand Aristide during a protest demanding his return in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Wednesday Feb. 2, 2011. (AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Haiti waited nervously into the early Thursday hours for election officials to announce who will compete in March’s presidential runoff vote with many fearing the result could spark widespread protests and rioting.

The provisional electoral commission had been scheduled to announce on Wednesday which two of the three front-running candidates from the November presidential ballot would get spots in the runoff. But as midnight passed, the results were still not ready and a council spokesman asked waiting reporters to be patient.

Preliminary results showing government-backed candidate Jude Celestin edging out singer Michel “Sweet Micky” Martelly for second place – and the final spot in the runoff – set off often violent protests in December. In first place was former first lady Mirlande Manigat.

On Wednesday, banks and stores closed early and people rushed to get home in the capital Port-au-Prince, fearing unrest after the announcement.

But past midnight Thursday, journalists napped, chatted and checked the Internet at the electoral council headquarters in Petionville. Around 10 p.m. local time a spokesman appeared, asked the media for patience and left.

Many Haitians gave up and went to sleep.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton flew to Port-au-Prince on Sunday to meet with all three candidates and reaffirm in person to President Rene Preval that Washington backed an Organization of American States report recommending that Celestin be dropped from the race.

But on Tuesday rumors spread through the capital that the report would be rejected, either by putting Celestin in the next round or canceling the election altogether.

Annulling the election outright could also ruin the advantage of Manigat, a conservative whose supporters have protested violently in her favor, mainly in the countryside.

“Haiti awaits the final presidential results with trepidation,” Radio Kiskeya said on its website. Radio Metropole said, “Nobody knows what will happen during these next few hours, which may be crucial for the future of the country.”

The U.S. Embassy issued an alert for U.S. citizens warning of the “potential for elections-related violence throughout Haiti for the duration of the elections period.”

The Nov. 28 first round included widespread disorganization, violence, intimidation, fraud and a call on election day from nearly every candidate – including Martelly and Manigat – to cancel the vote while it was going on.

An OAS team recommended that recalculating the results based on estimates of fraud would create a Manigat-Martelly faceoff in the runoff.

This week the Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement breaking with the State Department and calling on “the United States and the international community to uphold the ideals of fairness and support a new Haiti election process that is free and fair.”

State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said Tuesday night that officials in Washington were awaiting the results.

“We certainly reiterate our strong desire that the results reflect the will of the Haitian people and then enable Haiti to move on with the follow-on elections that they’ve already announced for next month,” he said.

Preval’s five-year term is scheduled to end Monday under the constitution. An emergency law passed by members of his former party in an expiring Senate would allow him to remain in office for up to three more months, in part because his 2006 inauguration was delayed.

If Preval steps down as scheduled, the Haitian constitution says the highest-ranking member of Haiti’s supreme court would take over the country pending an election to be held no less than 45 days and no more than 90 days later. The court’s presidency is currently vacant.

The situation is further complicated by the recent return of ousted dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier after 25 years of exile and discussions surrounding a potential return by exiled President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, whose party was not allowed to participate in the election.

Protesters called for his return in Port-au-Prince on Wednesday.

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