The first results from Afghanistan's presidential election show the country is headed for a runoff next month between former ministers, with two other candidates securing enough of the vote to potentially act as kingmakers.
After a week of waiting, the election commission finally unveiled on Sunday a snapshot of the overall vote: 10% of the results from about three-quarters of Afghanistan's provinces.
Following a spate of rumours, wild claims and fierce accusations, the first solid evidence came with a strict warning that fluctuations were not only possible but likely as more results are tallied.
"I must tell you, there will be changes in the days ahead as we announce further results," said Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, chair of the Independent Election Commission. "We are checking the partial results to ensure the final result is clear, and we will share it with the nation."
The tally gave Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and mujahideen fighter, a slim lead at about 42%, followed by the former finance minister and World Bank technocrat Ashraf Ghani on 38%. If no candidate gets more than half the vote, there is a runoff between the top two.
First peaceful transfer of power
Lagging far behind in third place with less than 10% was Zalmai Rassoul, a moderate former minister widely believed to be the incumbent Hamid Karzai's preferred successor. Winning barely 5% – but still enough to potentially influence a runoff – was a hardline Islamist, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the man who first invited Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan.
The candidates are competing to take over from Karzai, who has ruled for more than a decade but was barred by the Constitution from standing again. If the drawn-out election process continues as successfully as it began, it will herald the country's first ever peaceful, democratic transfer of power.
Just over a week ago Afghans flocked to the polls in unexpectedly high numbers, and although dozens of polling stations in rural and insecure areas came under Taliban attack, the voting overall was not seriously disrupted by violence.
Because the votes have to be brought to Kabul from around the country, including areas so remote that ballot boxes must be transported there and back on donkeys, the vote-counting process is painfully slow. Full preliminary results are not expected until April 24, and there are then several weeks for election organisers to shift through hundreds of fraud allegations and any other complaints.
Both of the frontrunners still have their hopes set on a first-round win and called on election organisers to root out fraud.
Nearly 1 900 complaints
Ghani, lagging marginally behind Abdullah, compared the preliminary results to the first 10 minutes of a football game, while Abdullah said he expected to build from a position of strength.
"To be honest, this result is not news for me," Abdullah told the Guardian when asked about his lead. "We didn't expect every partial count will come out the same way, and there is another caveat: that in the eight provinces that have not been counted, we have the majority vote in all except one or two."
Overall, observers and election organisers say they think there was less cheating in this election than the 2009 vote that returned Karzai to power, when more than one-million votes were eventually thrown out as fakes. But there have still been many serious accusations, and videos and photos of alleged violations have been circulating on social media.
The vote watchdog said there had been nearly 1 900 complaints, almost half of them serious enough to affect poll results. However, a significant proportion of those were about candidates from provincial-level elections held at the same time as the presidential vote. The watchdog promised to tackle all of them.
"We are very serious about separating fraudulent votes from valid ones," said Nader Mohseni, of the Independent Election Complaints Commission, vowing full transparency in its work. "The doors of [the commission's] offices in all provinces are open to observers." – © Guardian News and Media 2014