KABUL: Afghan officials released preliminary election results showing former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani well in the lead for the presidency, but said no winner can be declared because millions of ballots were being audited for fraud.
The announcement came as Ghani is locked in a standoff with his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has refused to accept any electon results until all fraudulent ballots are invalidated.
Many of Ghani’s supporters didn’t wait for final results to celebrate. Hundreds took to the streets of Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, playing drums and dancing after hearing the news.
The Independent Election Commission acknowledged vote rigging had occurred and said ballots from about 7,000 of nearly 23,000 polling stations would be audited.
“We cannot ignore that there were technical problems and fraud that took place during the election process,” the commission’s chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani said. “We are not denying fraud in the election, some governors and Afghan government officials were involved in fraud.”
The results showed that Ghani had about 4.5 million votes, or 56 percent, while Abdullah had 3.5 million votes, or 44 percent, according to the commission. Turnout was more than 50 percent, IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister who won the first round of voting April 5 by a large margin, says his campaign monitors recorded ballot box stuffing and other irregularities, prompting him to suspend his cooperation with electoral officials. The European Union also expressed concern about “highly worrying indications of potentially widespread fraud.”
The U.S. also urged caution.
“We have seen today’s announcement of preliminary results and note that these figures are not final or authoritative and may not predict the final outcome, which could still change based on the findings of the Afghan electoral bodies. Serious allegations of fraud have been raised and have yet to be adequately investigated,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
She said more than 3 million ballots could be affected but expressed confidence the process could be completed in time to allow the inauguration of the next president to be held August 2 as scheduled.
The preliminary results had been due July 2 but were delayed by five days while officials said they would audit ballots from 1,930 polling stations that had at least 599 votes. Nouristani said that had led to 6,474 pro-Ghani votes and 4,428 in favor of Abdullah from 114 polling stations being invalidated.
Abdullah said that was insufficient and demanded the results be postponed until all fraud allegations were resolved.
The impasse has threatened to undermine what the U.S. and its allies had hoped would be the country’s first democratic transfer of authority after President Hamid Karzai agreed to step down after two terms as legally required.
Western officials were looking for a smooth transition to show progress ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat troops by the end of this year. Whoever wins will inherit an impoverished country mired in insurgency and facing high unemployment and declining foreign aid.
Both candidates have promised to sign a security pact with the Obama administration that would allow nearly 10,000 American forces to remain in the country in a training capacity and to conduct counterterrorism operations. A disruption in the announcement of election results could mean another delay in finalizing that agreement, which was rebuffed by Karzai.
Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank official, also filed complaints of irregularities in the June 14 balloting but has insisted that the agreed-upon counting process be respected and said any further delays in releasing results would be unacceptable.
According to the election commission’s official timetable, final results are due July 22. Karzai set August 2 as the date for the new president to be sworn in.