KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Afghan officials released preliminary election results Monday showing former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai well in the lead for the presidency but said no winner can be declared because millions of ballots were being audited for fraud.
The announcement came as Ahmadzai is locked in a standoff with his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who has refused to accept any results until all fraudulent ballots are invalidated. A spokesman for his campaign rejected the results and called the decision to release them "a coup."
The United States issued a strongly worded statement cautioning the results "are not final or authoritative" and urging electoral authorities to "implement a thorough audit whether or not the two campaigns agree."
The Independent Election Commission acknowledged that vote rigging had occurred and said ballots from about 7,000 more of the nearly 23,000 polling stations would be audited.
"We cannot ignore that there were technical problems and fraud that took place during the election process," the commission's chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani said. "We are not denying fraud in the election, some governors and Afghan government officials were involved in fraud."
The results showed that Ghani had about 4.5 million votes, or 56 percent, while Abdullah had 3.5 million votes, or 44 percent, according to the commission. Turnout was more than 50 percent, IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister who won the first round of voting on April 5 by a large margin, says his campaign monitors recorded ballot box stuffing and other irregularities, prompting him to suspend his cooperation with electoral officials. The European Union also expressed concern about "highly worrying indications of potentially widespread fraud."
The U.S. State Department called for a "full and thorough review of all reasonable allegations of irregularities" to ensure Afghan confidence in the integrity of the electoral process and broad acceptance of the new Afghan president.
"Serious allegations of fraud have been raised and have yet to be adequately investigated," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said in a statement.
She said more than 3 million ballots could be affected but expressed confidence the process could be completed in time to allow the inauguration of the next president to be held on Aug. 2 as scheduled.
The preliminary results had been due on July 2 but were delayed by five days while officials said they would audit ballots from 1,930 polling stations that had at least 599 votes. Nouristani said that had led to 6,474 pro-Ahmadzai votes and 4,428 in favor of Abdullah from 114 polling stations being invalidated.
Abdullah said Sunday that was insufficient and demanded the results be postponed until all fraud allegations were resolved. His campaign planned a press conference on Tuesday.
"The announcement of the results was a coup by the IEC and Ghani and Karzai against our votes," said Abdul Satar Murad, a member of Abdullah's campaign team. "And this announcement will never be accepted by us."
Many of Ahmadzai's supporters didn't wait for final results to celebrate. Scores took to the streets of Kabul and the southern city of Kandahar, playing drums and dancing after hearing the news.
Elay Ershad, a lawmaker and member of Ahmadzai's team, welcomed the announcement of the results, pointing out there were still two weeks to resolve complaints about fraud before the final results are due.
According to the election commission's official timetable, final results are due on July 22.
The impasse has threatened to undermine what the U.S. and its allies had hoped would be the country's first democratic transfer of authority after President Hamid Karzai agreed to step down after two terms as legally required.
Western officials were looking for a smooth transition to show progress ahead of the withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat troops by the end of this year. Whoever wins will inherit an impoverished country mired in insurgency and facing high unemployment and declining foreign aid.
Both candidates have promised to sign a security pact with the Obama administration that would allow nearly 10,000 American forces to remain in the country in a training capacity and to conduct counterterrorism operations. A disruption in the announcement of election results could mean another delay in finalizing that agreement, which was rebuffed by Karzai.
Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official, also filed complaints of irregularities in the June 14 balloting but has insisted that the agreed-upon counting process be respected and said any further delays in releasing results would be unacceptable.
The results were announced after the campaign teams held hours of negotiations with electoral officials over the number of polling stations to be audited.