Election officials in Afghanistan declared Monday that preliminary results indicate that former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani won last month's presidential election runoff, a contested ballot outcome that threatens to split the country along ethnic lines.
The Independent Election Commission said Ghani won the June 14 second round with 56.44 percent of the vote, according to preliminary results. The tally might still change, however, when the final official numbers come out on July 22 – though many expect Ghani to win even after the fraudulent votes are thrown out.
The preliminary results mark a massive political comeback for Ghani, who ran for president in 2009 and came away with less than 5 percent of the vote. Ghani, who had lived abroad for decades, was accused by some Afghans of being out of touch with everyday citizens and the challenges they face.
But Ghani's success after being appointed by President Hamid Karzai in 2001 to be his advisor and then head the Ministry of Finance earned him international recognition. Ghani was even invited to give a TED talk in 2006, after he had reformed Afghanistan's currency and massively expanded mobile phone networks throughout the country.
Ghani's rival Abdullah Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter rejected the results as a "coup."
"We don't accept the results which were announced today and we consider this as a coup against people's votes," said Mujib Rahman Rahimi, a spokesman for Abdullah's campaign.
The IEC also cautioned that onlookers should be careful in calling the election.
"The announcement of preliminary results does not mean that the leading candidate is the winner and there is [the possibility] the outcome might change after we inspect complaints," IEC chief Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani told reporters.
Though the specter of ethnic tensions has been raised, protests on the ground have so far not gained much traction or crowds. Regardless of who wins the election, a large part of the Afhgan population will be angry with the results, and the chance of violence will depend largely on how the leaders react.
Abdullah, son of a Pashtun father and a Tajik mother, draws much of his support from the Tajik minority in northern Afghanistan. Ghani has strong support from Pashtun tribes in the country's south and east. Without a unifying leader accepted by all sides, some fear Afghanistan could split into two or more fiefdoms along tribal fault lines, or even return to the bloody civil war of the 1990s.
Abdullah has accused Karzai, also a Pashtun, of playing a role in the alleged rigging in Ghani's favor, and has said he would accept the vote only if he sees firm evidence that fraudulent votes had been thrown out and the final result was clean.
Taliban fighters remain a formidable security risk after vowing to disrupt the election process. On Monday, they killed a district police chief in the western city of Herat and attacked a checkpoint in northern Afghanistan.
The election was intended to mark the first democratic transfer of power in Afghan history, a crucial step toward stability as NATO prepares to withdraw most of its troops by the end of the year.
The United States welcomed the election, and called on both campaigns and their supporters to cooperate with any investigations into voting fraud, and refrain from provocative actions.
"The United States reaffirms its support for a sovereign, unified, and democratic Afghanistan and for the Afghan electoral process," Jen Psaki, spokeswoman for the U.S. State Department, said Monday in a press release.
"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."
Western powers, particularly the U.S., had hoped for a trouble-free process that would show that 12 years of their military involvement in Afghanistan were not in vain and contributed to nation-building.
Al Jazeera and wire services