The election crisis in Afghanistan deepened Monday as officials announced that preliminary results in the presidential race showed former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani with a substantial lead even as his opponent leveled charges of systematic fraud.
Election officials acknowledged that there had been irregularities and said the result was "by no means" final. Nevertheless, the announcement set off celebrations among Ghani supporters and signaled a bitter -- and possibly violent -- conclusion to an election that the Obama administration had hoped would showcase a stable Afghanistan as most U.S. troops withdraw.
Challenger Abdullah Abdullah's campaign said it did not accept the results and repeated its demands that thousands more polling stations be investigated for potential irregularities. Abdullah, a former foreign minister who held a commanding lead after the first round of voting, has accused election authorities of rigging the election in Ghani's favor, and released audio recordings purporting to show officials conspiring against him.
The preliminary results showed a dramatic change of fortune for Ghani, who more than doubled his vote tally from 2.08 million in April's first round to 4.48 million in the June runoff, the Independent Election Commission reported. The total number of votes surpassed 8 million, far higher than the first round despite widespread reports that more voters had stayed home.
"We cannot deny fraud and violations in the process," the head of the election commission, Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, told a news conference in Kabul. But he said that a complaints commission would investigate the fraud claims and issue findings before final results are due July 24.
In a bid to avert chaos, United Nations officials have held urgent talks in recent days with representatives of the two campaigns, and by Monday they appeared to have reached an agreement that more than 7,000 out of 23,000 polling stations nationwide would be audited. The move affects about 3 million ballots, enough to swing the outcome of the election.
U.S. officials have taken pains to remain on the sidelines in the election, but State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki issued an unusually blunt statement Monday saying that the U.N.-proposed audits should take place "whether or not the two campaigns agree."
"A full and thorough review of all reasonable allegations of irregularities is essential to ensure that the Afghan people have confidence in the integrity of the electoral process and that the new Afghan president is broadly accepted inside and outside Afghanistan," Psaki said.
Ghani, who officials said had 56.44% of the vote to Abdullah's 43.56%, a margin of about 1 million votes, credited improvements in his campaign for his sharp turnaround. But Abdullah supporters charged that Afghan officials, including allies of President Hamid Karzai, favored Ghani, who like the outgoing president is an ethnic Pashtun and has strong support in southern Afghanistan.
Abdullah's running mate, Mohammed Mohaqeq, said his campaign would not accept the election result unless all fraudulent votes were discarded.
"We will not accept the results and consequences will follow," Mohaqeq told Afghanistan's Tolo news channel.
Abdullah, who is of mixed Pashtun-Tajik lineage but is more closely identified with the northern Tajik minority, temporarily suspended cooperation with the election commission last month after his campaign alleged "industrial-scale" fraud. He called for an investigation of provinces where he said totals for Ghani were suspiciously high, including polling centers where women outnumbered men -- an unusual occurrence in Afghanistan's overwhelmingly male-dominated society.
But preliminary results released Monday showed questionable vote tallies for both candidates. At one polling center in the northern province of Nuristan, five ballot boxes each recorded exactly 500 votes for Abdullah and 100 for Ghani.
A new president is scheduled to be inaugurated Aug. 2, but the election dispute threatens to cause a delay. Afghanistan's next leader is due to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States that would allow nearly 10,000 U.S. troops to remain in the country for two years to conduct training and counter-terrorism operations.
The election controversy comes as Taliban insurgents have carried out a string of attacks in recent weeks aimed at demonstrating their staying power. Earlier Monday, insurgents struck a police vehicle and killed five officers in the western province of Herat, local officials said.
Special correspondent Baktash reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.