KABUL - Preliminary tallies from Afghanistan's presidential election showed former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah leading in parts of Kabul on Monday, but with ballot counting likely to last weeks it was far too early to predict a winner.
The two other frontrunners alleged serious fraud in the April 5 vote, which all being well will lead to Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power as incumbent Hamid Karzai prepares to step down after more than 12 years in the office.
Trucks stacked with plastic ballot boxes began to trickle into the capital on Monday, as officials prepared to open a centre to tally votes from across the rugged country.
Given the United State's plan to withdraw most of its troops by the end of the year, the longer Afghanistan has to wait before a new leader is installed the greater is the risk of instability either from the Taliban insurgency, or rivalries between factions in a country riven by ethnic and tribal fault lines.
"We are trying to start the process as soon as possible,"said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission. "It's a long process. It will take time."
If none of the candidates score over 50 per cent it will take even longer before a winner is declared, as there will be a second round run off at the end of May at the earliest.
Preliminary results are not due until April 24, but a tour of Kabul polling stations showed that Abdullah was firmly in the lead, confirming the suave former anti-Soviet resistance fighter's popularity in the capital.
Running second came Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank official with a programme of radical economic reform. Former finance minister Ghani should score well in the north, as his running mate is Abdul Rashid Dostum, a feared former warlord who holds sway over much of the region.
Trailing in third was another former finance minister, Zalmai Rassoul. He is believed to have Karzai's backing, and as a consequence is expected to do better in the Pashtun-dominated south, where the Karzai family has strengthened its influence over the years.