KABUL - Two leading candidates in Afghanistan's presidential election each claimed Wednesday to be winning the vote count easily, but said they would be ready to contest a second-round run-off if necessary.
More than seven million people defied Taliban threats of violence in Saturday's election to select a successor to President Hamid Karzai as US-led troops prepare to exit the country.
Unless one candidate gets more than 50 per cent of the vote, the top two names will go head-to-head in another election scheduled for late May.
Campaign officials for former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani and for Abdullah Abdullah, who came second in the 2009 election, both said that they were well ahead in unofficial counting.
"Initial assessment of the tally by our observers show that we are far in the lead," Azita Rafat, Ghani's spokeswoman, told AFP.
"We have to wait for the announcement made by the IEC (Independent Election Commission), but if its decision is to go to the second round, we are fully prepared for that with confidence in our ultimate success." Abdullah had vowed on the campaign trail to secure a first-round victory, and his team has been upbeat since the vote.
"Analysis by our database centre shows that our election ticket is in the lead, scoring 62 per cent of the votes that we have counted," said Abdullah's spokesman Mujib Rahman Rahimi.
"The official account has to come from the IEC, and these are partial results that could change, but we are ready for a second round if needed."
Fraud fears persist
Campaign officials have been collating results pinned up in the 6,400 individual polling centres.
Abdullah's campaign said it had counted two million of the estimated seven million votes, while a running tally published on Ghani's website was taken down on the request of the IEC.
Turnout was about 58 per cent, but the figure is uncertain as there is no proper electoral roll.
The Election Complaints Commission (ECC) chief said Wednesday that votes would be combed through to uncover cheating after fears of a repeat of the massive fraud that blighted Karzai's re-election in 2009.
"There has been fraud, there have been violations, and not in small numbers, but we are committed to clean out the fraudulent votes," ECC chief Abdul Satar Saadat told reporters.
He said more than 3,000 complaints had been registered, mostly about shortages of ballot papers - a problem allegedly due to poor planning, unexpectedly large turnout and possible ballot-box stuffing.
The ECC has said that the election appeared cleaner than the chaotic 2009 vote, which badly damaged ties between Karzai and the US-led international donors on which Afghanistan relies.
Some partial official results may be released in the coming days, though the final result is not due until May 14 with the run-off scheduled on May 28.
An undisputed result could allow the new president to promote peace and reconciliation with the Taliban, as well as reset the crucial, and much battered, relationship with the United States.
The new president is also likely to sign a deal for a small number of US troops to stay in Afghanistan from 2015, lessening the fear of spiralling violence and ending the threat that essential aid money could be cut off.
The final 51,000 US-led NATO combat troops are due to withdraw this year.