Afghanistan poll 'set for run-off'
Two clear front-runners have emerged in Afghanistan's presidential election as partial results showed a tight race that increasingly appears destined for a run-off vote.
Both candidates promise a fresh start with the West, vowing to sign a security pact with the United States that has been rejected by president Hamid Karzai, but their fierce rivalry has raised the possibility of divisive campaigning in what has been a relatively peaceful vote so far.
With 10% of the ballots counted, Abdullah Abdullah, who was Mr Karzai's main rival in his fraud-marred re-election in 2009, had 41.9% of the vote.
Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official, followed with 37.6%. Zalmai Rassoul, another former foreign minister widely considered as Mr Karzai's pick, was a distant third with 9.8%.
Mr Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Officials cautioned the vote count could change as full preliminary results won't be due until April 24, but the early numbers suggest none of the eight candidates likely will get the outright majority needed to avoid a run-off.
Shortly after officials announced the results, Mr Abdullah said he has held talks with Mr Rassoul, but it is premature to discuss a possible alliance. The 53-year-old said he will seek a unity government if elected, but he only saw one role for Dr Ghani.
"Dr Ghani could serve as a loyal opposition. That's also a service to the nation," Mr Abdullah said in an interview at his home in Kabul.
Dr Ghani, however, remains confident he will be in first place at the final tally. He dismissed talk of a political deal to avoid a run-off, saying he would run in a second round if needed.
"We are in a 100-minute game and we've only done 10 minutes," he said. He noted that he and Mr Abdullah are only a little over 21,000 votes apart, and millions of votes remain to be counted.
The chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, also said it was too soon to predict the outcome. "Maybe today one candidate looks strong. Tomorrow, maybe another will pull ahead," he said.
Final results are to be declared in mid-May once complaints of fraud are fully investigated.
The man who replaces Karzai, the only president Afghans have known since the US-led invasion ousted the Taliban in 2001, faces a huge task in fighting the insurgents and overseeing the withdrawal of the last foreign combat troops by the end of this year.
Both front-runners support women's rights and differ largely on domestic issues such as relations with Pakistan and peace talks with the Taliban. They also have promised to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States that would allow thousands of foreign troops to remain in the country in a training and advisory role after 2014.
Mr Abdullah has said he would sign the security pact within a month of taking office.
"You'll not find me one of those candidates that during the election I say one thing and after another," he said.
"My position in regards to the (pact) is that it should be signed as soon as possible and is long overdue already."
Mr Ahmadzai, who chaired a commission overseeing the transition of responsibility for security from the US-led coalition to Afghan forces, also has said he would sign the agreement shortly after taking office.
The 64-year-old academic also ran for president in 2009 but received just 3 percent of the vote. He has gained popularity among many Afghans looking for a candidate who is not tied to the country's troubled past and promises change.