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By Hashmat Baktash and Shashank Bengali, Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan — Early tallies released Sunday suggested that Afghanistan’s presidential election will be a two-man race, with neither former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah nor former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani close to the majority needed to avoid a runoff.

Abdullah held a slight edge, with 41.9 percent of the vote to Ghani’s 37.6 percent. The partial results represented barely 7 percent of the estimated 7 million ballots cast, however, and international observers urged patience during lengthy vote counting.

TThe initial results were the first official figures released from the April 5 election, which would lead to the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history. President Hamid Karzai is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

Full preliminary results are expected to be announced in two weeks. If no one wins a majority, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters would be held in late May or June.

Running a distant third was longtime Karzai adviser Zalmai Rassoul, whom many had viewed as the incumbent’s favored candidate. Rassoul had 9.8 percent of the vote. Though that trend, if it holds up, would put him out of the race, in a close second-round contest his endorsement could prove important.

So could that of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Islamist former warlord best known for once having ties to Osama bin Laden. Sayyaf had 5.1 percent of the vote, according to the figures released by Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission.

“Until the final results are announced by the IEC, stakeholders should be careful in drawing premature conclusions so as not to create inaccurate expectations,” said Jan Kubis, the top United Nations official in Kabul. “I urge presidential candidates and their supporters to display patience while vote tallying is completed.”

Because of a high turnout and the lack of a large-scale attack by Taliban insurgents that could have derailed balloting, the election was a milestone in Afghanistan. However, there were reports of scattered violence across the country on Election Day, as well as of many Afghans choosing not to vote because of Taliban threats.

Election officials said that 205 polling centers of the 6,423 nationwide did not open for security reasons, although they did not say where. In past Afghan elections, a prime source of fraud was stuffed ballot boxes from polling sites that were not open to voters.

“Now that they’re starting to release the results, I hope they’ll also soon post the list of closed polling stations, so that this can be compared to people’s observations,” said Martine van Bijlert, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, an independent research organization in Kabul.

The early results showed that Abdullah, who has close ties to the anti-Soviet Northern Alliance factions that retain influence among Afghanistan’s ethnic minorities, performed well in northern Afghanistan, as expected.

Ghani, who, like Karzai, is a Pashtun, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, outpolled his rivals in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, which are dominated by Pashtuns.

The election commission did not release any results from eight of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, including some remote areas where transporting ballots was difficult. But officials said that 85 percent of tally sheets nationwide had arrived at the heavily fortified election headquarters in Kabul, where they were being processed, and the rest were expected to arrive within days.

AFP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

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