KABUL -- Although Afghan election officials were quick to declare Afghanistan's presidential runoff a success, allegations of massive fraud are pointing to a sad ending.
Candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, who faced off in the second round election on June 14, have traded accusations of vote rigging. And each appears braced to accept nothing less than victory.
The situation is murky, with ballots cast in the June 14 election still being counted, and details regarding the thousands of complaints of electoral fraud have yet to be publicly disclosed. But one thing is clear: Afghanistan's transition to a new president won't be a smooth one.
Abdullah hammered that point home on June 18 when he said his observer team had uncovered massive fraud, a claim that comes after unofficial early returns indicated that Ghani was poised for a major upset.
Saying he no longer trusted Afghanistan's Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), Abdullah announced that he had ordered his team to stop observing the vote count, to vacate the electoral oversight body's office in Kabul, and to suspend all relations with it.
Ghani, has called on political parties to respect the counting process while it was under way, and accused Abdullah of undermining the effort.
Upping the ante, Abdullah has also shown a willingness to go outside the Afghan system, saying that a United Nations-led commission should take over the vote count.
Ghani spokesman Zahir Zohair responded by saying the election should be "judged by the legal authorities in accordance with [Afghan] law," adding that "nothing should be above the law."
The back and forth has led observers to warn of an extended political crisis.
"Unfortunately, some of the early indications are that it is a close race and we will be dragged into a bitter squabbling over results," says Graeme Smith, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group in Kabul.
The points of contention are an unexpectedly high voter turnout overall, increases seen in voting among women and in insecure regions, and conflicting accounts regarding the level of fraud.
The debate began within hours after polls closed, when IEC head Yusuf Nuristani said that turnout appeared to be on track to exceed 7 million votes, the number recorded in the first round, and that "the amount of fraud is much less than the previous time."
That came as a surprise because, before the vote, it was widely expected that turnout would be lower than in April's first round poll due to disillusionment among voters following reports of major fraud the last time around and the prospect of venturing out to vote as the Taliban was in the middle of its annual spring offensive.
On voting day many media described low numbers of voters in major urban areas. In rural areas, many polling stations were reported to be empty, save for election staff and observers. And election observers, such as the Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA) and the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), reported that turnout was down compared to the first round, while fraud was up.
TEFA head Naeem Ayubzada, whose independent observer group deployed around 8,000 observers on election day, flatly calls the IEC's turnout figures "inflated" and says turnout was between 5-6 million.
Much of the scrutiny has been focused on the vote in eastern Afghanistan, Ghani's support base.
TEFA's Ayubzada says the number of votes counted in the eastern provinces of Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Nangarhar, and Logar was higher than the entire adult population. "We think the increase in numbers was due to fraud," he said.
Nader Naderi, the head of FEFA, an independent observer group that dispatched around 9,000 observers on election day, said there was "double and in some cases a three-fold increase" in votes cast in the eastern provinces.
He says it is too early to conclude that such an increase was the result of fraud, but he said it "raised some questions."
Ghani's camp has said the high turnout there was due to its targeted mobilization efforts, especially among women, whom election official say accounted for 38 percent of the national vote.
Women-Only Polling Stations
But doubts have been cast over the number of women who turned out as well, particularly in the predominantly Pashtun areas of south and east Afghanistan, where female voters traditionally vote in small numbers and where much of the vote fraud occurred in the maligned 2009 presidential vote.
TEFA's Ayubzada says that women-only polling stations are particularly vulnerable to fraud.
On election day, due to a shortage of female election workers, many polling centers for women were understaffed, making it difficult to keep an eye out for voting irregularities. It also facilitates proxy voting, in which male relatives vote on behalf of the women of the household.
FEFA, in an election-day statement, reported that male voters were seen in 114 female polling stations, and underage voters in 377 polling stations.
The two independent election observers, FEFA and TEFA, noted that vote fraud was not isolated to one area of the country, however.
Ayubzada noted a rise in the number of irregularities in the northern provinces of Balkh and Baghlan, strongholds of Abdullah. He also said his group had detected lower levels of fraud in some areas of the country, including the capital Kabul, the western Herat Province, and the central Parwan Province.
Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has received 2,558 complaints with evidence of voter fraud and other violations. Interestingly, 991 of those complaints were filed against the IEC, whose chief electoral officer Ziaulhaq Amarkhil is being investigated for possible ballot-stuffing. Amarkhil was arrested by Kabul's police chief, General Zahir, on June 14 when he apparently left the IEC headquarters with several cars full of ballot papers.
FEFA said in a statement issued on election day that its "observers have reported different cases of irregularities and breach of electoral laws and procedures by different electoral personages from across the country." It also alleged that, in some polling stations, government and security officials took part in fraud and misconduct.
Abdullah, who was favored going into the second round after taking 45 percent of the first round vote, has been in a contentious presidential race before.
He ran in 2009, when more than 1 million first-round ballots were disqualified, most of them in favor of incumbent President Hamid Karzai. The election was headed for a second round before Abdullah dropped out under pressure from key Afghan power brokers and foreign officials eager to defuse the crisis.
With Abdullah making clear that he is not going down without a fight, there appears to be little room for such a scenario repeating itself this time around, however.