(AP) Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah demanded Wednesday that Afghan electoral authorities stop counting ballots from a weekend runoff vote, citing new allegations of widespread fraud. The election commission refused and appealed to all sides to await final results.
The discord set the stage for a showdown that could threaten Afghanistan's first peaceful transfer of authority.
Abdullah, a onetime aide to a famed warlord during the Afghan anti-Soviet guerrilla campaign, said monitors deployed by his campaign to the polls had recorded massive ballot box stuffing and other irregularities. He also announced his team was suspending relations with the Independent Election Commission, accusing it of interfering in the vote and inflating turnout figures.
The finger-pointing in the June 14 election pitting Abdullah against Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai mars what Western officials had hoped would be an important step toward democracy for the troubled country as the U.S. and its allies wind down their 13-year combat mission. Both candidates have promised to sign a security pact with the United States that would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to stay in the country beyond the end of this year to train Afghan security forces and perform counterterrorism operations.
President Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban, was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.
Abdullah's team has said its exit polling shows Ahmadzai with a 1 million-vote lead in the current round and claimed election workers and government officials had engineered fraud to help him.
"We announce that we have no confidence or trust in the election bodies," Abdullah said at a news conference. "The counting process should stop immediately and if that continues, it will have no legitimacy."
He proposed that the two candidates form a joint committee under U.N. supervision to resolve the issue.
A spokesman for the electoral commission, Noor Mohammad Noor, said the vote count was continuing with national and international observers monitoring the process. Preliminary results are not due until July 2, followed by final results on July 22, according to the official timetable. Electoral officials have said they would release partial results before that.
"The process will not be stopped. This is Independent Election Commission's decision," Noor told reporters. "We have a code of conduct for both candidates. We hope they both will obey that code."
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan called for respect of the country's laws and electoral institutions, saying Abdullah's announcement had caught it by surprise.
"Regrettable as this step may be, we will continue to engage closely with both campaigns and the electoral commissions, consulting with them on a way forward," the U.N.'s special representative in Afghanistan, Jan Kubish, said in a statement. "For their part, the electoral bodies have to demonstrate the highest levels of transparency and integrity and continue to proactively respond to valid candidate concerns."
A spokesman for Ahmadzai's campaign accused Abdullah of reneging on the code of conduct they both had signed.
"Abdullah's reasons for wanting the counting process suspended are not sufficient," spokesman Faizullah Zaki said. "We strongly reject all accusations of fraud being engineered, and we see that as disrespecting all those citizens who accepted many problems twice and participated in the election."
A spokeswoman for Karzai's office, Adela Raz, said the outgoing president has respect for both candidates and hoped the problem could be resolved.
An initial turnout estimate suggested 7 million voters defied a Taliban threat of violence to cast ballots, which would be 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters and equivalent to the first round.
Abdullah's comments come as he is fighting for his second chance at the presidency. He was the runner-up to Karzai in disputed 2009 elections, but he dropped out of the race before a runoff could be held because of widespread vote-rigging.
The first round of voting on April 5 went relatively smoothly as six other candidates were eliminated and Abdullah and Ahmadzai emerged as the top vote-getters. But the campaign tone for the second round has been sharply more accusatory with the field narrowed to two hopefuls.
The Obama administration is watching carefully, eager to show progress in the country and get a security agreement signed after announcing it would leave 9,800 U.S. troops in Afghanistan at the end of this year to continue training the Afghans and conduct counterterrorism missions. That number would be cut in half by the end of 2015, and most of the remainder would leave by the end of 2016.
In Washington, at a Senate hearing on Afghanistan, the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan counseled patience in light of the controversy over the second-round vote.
"It's going to be some time before we know the outcome," James Dobbins said. "It's going to be a difficult several weeks."
He said U.S. officials were in contact with both campaigns, the election commissions and Karzai, who has been "trying to keep the candidates in the game."
Dobbins said there was "significant" fraud in the first round of voting and "almost certainly" in the second round. But, he added, "here are mechanisms for challenging and dealing with this fraud and these mechanisms have to be given a chance to work."
He urged the election commission to ensure Karzai's successor is accepted as legitimate.
"Premature or undocumented allegations of fraud are as dangerous as fraud itself," he said.
The U.N. Secretary-General's Special Representative for Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, urged the candidates to control their supporters to prevent them from doing or saying things that could lead to civil disorder and instability.
Violence also continued Wednesday. A suicide car bomber struck a police car in Qalat in the volatile southern province of Zabul, killing two policemen and wounding two others, provincial police chief Gen. Ghulam Sakhi Rooghlaiwnai said.
Associated Press writers Mirwais Khan in Kandahar, Deb Riechmann in Washington and Kim Gamel in Cairo contributed to this report.