Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani pledged Sunday to fight on after coming second in preliminary election results, setting the stage for a difficult run-off vote likely to be targeted by Taliban militants.
Another expensive, and potentially violent, election could be avoided by negotiations between the two leading candidates in the coming weeks, but both sides have dismissed talks of a possible power-sharing deal.
Ghani, a ex-World Bank economist, secured 31.5 percent of the vote, behind former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah on 44.9 percent, in the April 5 election that began Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power.
"In the second round, the people should decide who has the ability to bring changes to the system," Ghani told supporters in Kabul.
"We will go for a second round with determination. Our belief in victory is still strong."
As no candidate gained more than 50 percent, a run-off between the two leading names is required under the Afghan constitution.
Ghani said that investigations into fraud could change the percentages before final results are due on May 14.
"After inspection of fraud, the distance between the two top candidates will lessen," he said. "A second round is a must according to constitution. Any doubts will threaten the stability of Afghanistan.
"We will go for principles, not deals," he added. "The people's votes tell me not to strike any deals with anyone behind the curtains.
"We are ready, the people are ready, I call on the international community not to doubt our determination.
"If the polls are transparent, I will be the first to congratulate the winner, and we expect the same from them, because we will be the winner."
Whoever becomes the next president will have to oversee the fight against a resilient Taliban insurgency as 51,000 U.S.-led troops depart this year, as well as strengthen an economy that relies on declining aid money.
Eight men ran in the election three weeks ago, with polling day hailed a success by Afghan officials and foreign allies as the Taliban failed to launch a major attack despite threats to disrupt the vote.
The United Nations' mission in Afghanistan welcomed Sunday's results, but warned election officials that they must address all complaints "in a professional, expeditious and open manner" to safeguard the process.
The 2009 election, when Karzai retained power, was marred by fraud in a chaotic process that shook confidence in the multinational effort to develop the country and also marked a sharp decline in relations with the United States.
Karzai stayed publicly neutral in this latest election, but was widely thought to have lent some support to his loyal former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul, who took just 11 percent of the vote.
Rassoul could still play a key role in power-brokering before the next president is chosen, as could former Islamist warlord Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, who collected a seven percent.
Abdullah, a pro-U.S. politician who came second in 2009, was a close adviser to the late Ahmad Shah Massoud, a revered Tajik ethnic leader who fought the Taliban during their 1996-2001 rule.
Ghani is a renowned intellectual who energized the campaign with his fiery speeches and is more favored by the larger Pashtun ethnic group.
The leading candidates have pledged to explore peace talks with the Taliban and sign a deal with the U.S. that could allow 10,000 U.S. troops to stay on after this year on a training and counter-terrorism mission.
Nearly seven million people voted in the April 5 election out of an estimated electorate of 13.5 million -- well above the 2009 turnout.
Of those who voted, 36 percent were female -- a figure likely to be seen as a sign of some improvement in women's status in Afghanistan, a deeply conservative Muslim country.
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