PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Haiti will not be able to hold a second round of its disputed presidential election before February as it awaits a report from regional experts on contested preliminary results from the November 28 first round, a senior electoral official said on Tuesday.
The outcome of Haiti's chaotic November elections has remained in limbo since violent protests greeted the December 7 preliminary results of the first round vote in the Caribbean nation. The presidential and legislative polls were held amid confusion, fraud allegations and a raging cholera epidemic.
The Western Hemisphere's poorest state is preparing to mark the first anniversary of the devastating earthquake that struck a year ago on January 12. There are fears the political instability will delay the handover of billions of dollars of urgently needed reconstruction funds from foreign donors.
"Today we are at a dangerous crossroads," outgoing President Rene Preval said in a Haitian Independence Day broadcast over the weekend.
He rejects accusations by opposition presidential candidates that he and his ruling Inite (Unity) coalition rigged the vote to put their contender in the second round.
Responding to international concern over reported irregularities in the November 28 vote results, Preval requested help from the Organization of American States and a team of OAS experts is working on verifying the preliminary tally.
But this has delayed the original electoral timetable which had foreseen final first round results being announced on December 20 and a second round run-off being held on January 16.
"It will be materially impossible to hold the run-off on January 16," Pierre-Louis Opont, director general of Haiti's Provisional Electoral Council, told Reuters.
"From the date of the publication of the final results of the first round, we will need at least one month to hold the run-off," the electoral official added.
But he could not say when the final results of the November 28 first round might be announced, saying only that this would follow the report by the OAS experts and completion of the process that deals with challenges to the results.
The December 7 preliminary results put Jude Celestin, a little-known government technocrat and Preval protege, in a second round run-off with former first lady Mirlande Manigat.
But popular musician Michel Martelly, whom the electoral council placed narrowly third, less than a percentage point behind Celestin, has rejected this and called for a second round vote to include all 18 original presidential candidates.
Of these, a dozen demand complete cancellation of the vote, alleging massive fraud. They want Preval to resign and hand over to a provisional government when his five-year mandate formally ends on February 7.
Preval, who has served the constitutional limit of two terms in office, has rejected this option, saying he will only hand over to a legitimately elected president.
To allow for the possibility of election delays following the crippling January 12 earthquake, Haiti's parliament last year passed legislation allowing Preval to stay on in office until May 14 this year if necessary, to be able to hand over to the new president once his successor was legally elected.
In December, supporters of Martelly, a charismatic star of Haiti's Kompa dance music, staged several days of violent protests against the preliminary results, paralyzing the quake-ravaged capital Port-au-Prince and several other cities.
At least four people were killed in the riots, which the United Nations and aid groups warned would hinder an international medical response to the cholera epidemic.
The epidemic, which has affected all of Haiti's 10 provinces, had killed 3,481 people up to December 29, according to the Haitian Health Ministry.
The United Nations, the United States and the European Union have appealed to Haiti's government and presidential candidates to negotiate a peaceful settlement to the electoral dispute through legal and constitutional channels.
Writing by Pascal Fletcher; Editing by Cynthia Osterman