Preliminary results from Afghanistan's presidential election suggest a runoff in June will be required to determine who takes over in what could be the country's first-ever democratic transfer of power.
The head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission said that former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani appear to have been the leading vote getters in the April 5 first round.
The preliminary results put Abdullah at 44.9 percent and Ghani at 31.5 percent, commission head Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani announced in a televised broadcast from Kabul.
They were followed by third-place finisher Zalmai Rasul at 11.5 percent.
Nearly 6.9 million voters participated in the poll, Nuristani said, of a total of around 12 million who were eligible.
A runoff is still at least a month away, with the final official tally due in mid-May and time set aside to investigate allegations of irregularities.
The commission set a tentative date of June 7 for a two-man runoff.
"I think we are prepared, and if it goes to second round, yes, we think it is doable and we have a tentative schedule of June 7 to start the second round," Nuristani said, according to Reuters.
Eight men ran in the first round, after three of the approved final list of 11 candidates withdrew.
Many of them complained of fraud in the first-round vote.
The Election Commission has acknowledged that complaints have alleged thousands of irregularities.
Nuristani said the commission had invalidated some 240,000 ballots for fraud and other irregularities.
He said election officials were further examining ballots from 444 polling stations – potentially representing more than 200,000 votes – because of fraud allegations.
A representative of Abdullah's election team expressed discontent over the announced results.
Fazel Sancharaki told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan there were many unanswered questions regarding the vote count.
Sancharaki said: "The Election Commission itself said the ballots from 444 polling stations have not been counted yet, and as for invalidated ballots, it's not clear in which polling stations and for what reason the ballots were annulled."
Abbas Nawayan, a member of Ghani's election campaign team, said the team was awaiting the election officials to review all the complaints submitted to authorities.
Nawayan told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan Ghani's team is "fully prepaid" for a runoff election.
Abdullah, 53, is a former eye surgeon who served as foreign minister from 2001-05. He finished second behind Karzai in the 2009 presidential election with around 30 percent of the vote, but quit ahead of a possible runoff, citing alleged vote fraud.
Ghani, 64, is a former World Bank official who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology. He served as finance minister in 2002-04 who finished a distant fourth in the 2009 ballot with just three percent of the vote.
The outgoing Karzai is the only directly elected president the country has ever had and has been in charge since being backed for the job by the United Nations after the U.S.-led invasion to oust the Taliban in late 2001.
All the major candidates pledged to seek peace talks with the Taliban.
They have also vowed to sign a security pact with the United States that would allow 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan after the NATO-led troops withdraw from Afghanistan at the end of 2014.
Karzai has refused to sign to sign the security deal.