Afghan election officials say President Hamid Karzai and his nearest challenger are nearly neck and neck in partial returns from Thursday's vote, contradicting earlier claims by Karzai aides that the president has won a landslide victory.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) said its results were based on only 10 percent of the ballots counted in the Aug. 20 election, showing Karzai with 40.6 percent and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah with 38.7 percent.
Experts cautioned that the partial returns offer little to go on to predict a winner.
Karzai aides have been touting their own figures, saying the president won re-election with nearly 70 percent of the vote; Abdullah has charged massive vote fraud.
The preliminary figures suggest that the presidential election could be forced into a runoff if no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote. If so, that vote would be held Oct. 3.
The commission said the result was based on a count of only 524,000 valid votes, after about 31,000 were thrown out as invalid. It said that so far, the count included only about 2 percent of the votes from the southern province of Kandahar and no votes from neighboring Helmand province. Karzai expected to do well in both areas.
Marvin Weinbaum, who served as an international monitor during the election, says the initial release of results is "quite meaningless," because to see a trend, an analyst would have to know where the votes were counted.
Weinbaum, a scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, says the announcement also does not comport with the commission's original plan.
He says that commission officials were asked to release the figures as they were counted, but that they said they wanted to wait until they had enough information to give a fuller picture of the vote.
"So here we are, five days past the election, and they're claiming it's only 10 percent?" Weinbaum says. "On election day, all of the results were to be posted right outside of the voting centers, so it really should have been just a matter of adding all those up."
Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, stressed that it is too early to call the election with only 10 percent of the vote counted. Holbrooke, in Turkey on his way back from a visit to the region, said the early figures were "misleading."
Election officials said they would continue to announce partial results over the next few days. The final, official figures are not expected until next month.
Weinbaum says that he and other monitors were dismayed by what they saw as a dismissive attitude on the part of the election commission toward any complaints about the voting process.
"The election commission tended to dismiss just about any kind of negative statement that was made about the election, and especially comments that were coming from Afghan journalists. There's a real lack of confidence in the IEC," Weinbaum says.
As of Monday evening, the independent Electoral Complaints Commission, a separate body from the election commission, said it had received nearly 800 allegations of fraud, including more than 50 considered serious enough, if proven, to affect the outcome of the election.
Weinbaum says that he didn't see any examples of vote fraud, and that his delegation of observers did not have a single serious report of fraud. But he cautions that the monitors' movements were limited because of security.
"In the places where it's too insecure to have monitoring, that's where you'd expect to have the worst abuses," Weinbaum says.
Weinbaum says questions and complaints about the first round of voting have severely damaged the legitimacy of the result.
"So in the end, if it goes to a second ballot, I think that would be the best outcome," he says. "That's the only way I think you can salvage what's gone on."
Soraya Saharddi Nelson in Kabul contributed to this report.