KABUL — President Hamid Karzai on Saturday held his 54 percent lead in Afghanistan's elections with nearly all the votes counted, but vote-rigging complaints mean it could be weeks before final results are known.
With ballots from 95 percent of polling stations from the August 20 polls counted, preliminary results released by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) showed Karzai had a firm hold on his lead with 54.3 percent.
His nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, is lagging behind in the count so far with 28.1 percent, and has alleged massive state-engineered fraud in favour of a second five-year term for Western-backed Karzai.
But the winner will not be officially declared until all electoral fraud allegations are resolved, a process that could drag on, creating a dangerous political vacuum in a nation battling a resurgent Taliban.
The final result was initially scheduled for September 17, but with the IEC saying that hundreds of thousands of ballots are now quarantined for audit, naming Afghanistan's new president still looks weeks away.
IEC spokesman Daud Ali Najafi said 2.15 percent of the vote so far had been excluded, meaning votes from around 93 percent of polling stations were valid.
Ballots from 600 polling stations were withheld on the orders of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) pending an audit.
"A list has been sent to the ECC for further investigations," he told a press conference in Kabul.
The timing of an announcement of full preliminary results is also unknown, with Najafi saying it would be discussed Sunday between the IEC and the ECC.
The UN-backed ECC has already ordered thousands of votes thrown out from 83 polling stations and recounts in three provinces because of "clear and convincing evidence of fraud".
Concerns raised by the ECC include suspiciously high turnout in provinces where Taliban intimidation kept people away from the polls, and high numbers of votes for one candidate at certain stations -- indications of ballot stuffing.
Grant Kippen, chairman of the ECC, told AFP the commission had received 700 serious complaints so far and had carried out investigations in four of the country's 34 provinces, with teams going out to six more provinces next week.
Election officials and UN observers have refused to put a timescale on the final result but the US State Department and analysts have said it could take months to determine the results and probe the alleged irregularities.
"This election is far from over," said UN spokesman Adrian Edwards.
Delays were frustrating, he said, but he added: "This has to be an outcome that faithfully reflects the will of the Afghan voters in this election and there is a lot of work still to go on and we can't prejudge how long that will take."
Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told the BBC on Friday the beneficiary of any delays would be the Taliban and Al-Qaeda.
London-based think-tank the International Council on Security and Development has also said that any run-off or delays in the election results could lead to political instability and government paralysis.
But Nader Nadery, of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, said the ECC must be given time and resources to do its job.
"The process needs to be worked out. If it is taking a longer time, we should not rush," he said.
The presidential and provincial council elections were seen as a key test of Western-backed efforts to bring stability to Afghanistan eight years after a US-led invasion overthrew the Taliban regime.
But instead of the country emerging from decades of war, increasing attacks by the regrouped Taliban have hobbled development, while about 100,000 US and NATO troops are in the country backing up government forces.
A wave of fresh Taliban-linked attacks swept Afghanistan on Friday and Saturday, with up to 32 civilians including children, 19 security personnel, four US soldiers and dozens of Taliban rebels killed across the country.
In southern Kandahar province, two suicide attackers on a motorcycle hit the intelligence service headquarters, shooting a guard before detonating their explosive vests, police said. A young girl reportedly died from shock.
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