Afghanistan's election will go to a run-off vote between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, results on Thursday confirmed, as the country enters a new era without NATO combat troops.
The head-to-head election, scheduled for June 14, will choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan's first democratic transfer of power.
Whoever wins will have to oversee the fight against a resilient Taliban insurgency as 51,000 U.S.-led troops depart this year, as well as try to strengthen an economy reliant on declining aid money.
"After a thorough review, it is clear that no candidate has been able to win more than 50 percent and the election goes to a second round," said Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC).
Abdullah secured 45 percent of the vote on April 5, with his main rival Ghani on 31.6 percent, according to the final results, which came after weeks of deliberation over fraud allegations.
The 2009 election, when Karzai retained power, was marred by rigging 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.
The run-off was originally scheduled for May 28, but ink and other material was damaged in an insurgent attack on the election authorities' warehouses.
"Some sensitive materials that were stocked at IEC headquarters for the second round were destroyed by the Taliban attack -- providing those materials again needs time," Nuristani said.
The U.N. mission in Afghanistan welcomed the results, but warned that the run-off would pose a test for candidates and election authorities.
"Candidates have a responsibility to call on their supporters to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, intimidation, and threats," said UNAMA chief Jan Kubis.
"(They) must also instruct their supporters not to commit fraud on their behalf."
Both candidates were due to hold press conferences later Thursday.
Abdullah this week received a major boost with the endorsement of third-placed Zalmai Rassoul, a close ally of Karzai, who has stayed publicly neutral in the election.
Rassoul's support for Abdullah increased pressure on Ghani to concede, and another election could be avoided by deal-making in the coming weeks.
Abdullah had said on Wednesday that his campaign had evidence of fraudulent voting that would have a "significant impact on final results", but the official results were closely in line with the preliminary figures released late last month.
Karzai, who has ruled since the Taliban were ousted in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term in office.
The first-round election last month was hailed as a success, with turnout far better than in 2009 and the Taliban failing to launch a major attack despite threats to disrupt the vote.
The run-off will be a major security challenge for Afghanistan's police and army at the height of the traditional "fighting season".
Voting could also whip up ethnic tension as Abdullah's support is based among the Tajik minority and other northern groups, while Ghani is a Pashtun -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which is strongest in the south and east.
At a donors' meeting in Tokyo, deputy foreign minister Ershad Ahmadi asked nations not to reduce financial aid to Afghanistan, which has suffered more than three decades of conflict since the Soviet invasion of 1979.
"It is important to recognize that the war is not over yet," he told delegates.
"To ensure lasting success, it is crucial that the international community maintains its support and engagement in Afghanistan at this critical period."
An International Crisis Group (ICG) report released this week concluded that "the overall trend is one of escalating violence and insurgent attacks".
The Taliban insurgents this week marked the start of their annual "spring offensive" with rocket attacks on Kabul airport and a suicide attack on government offices in the eastern city of Jalalabad.
The Islamist extremists said that the offensive would cleanse "the filth of the infidels" from the country and also target translators, government officials and politicians.
Abdullah and Ghani have both pledged to sign a deal with Washington that could allow up to 10,000 U.S. troops to stay on after this year on a training and counter-terrorism mission.
Previous steps to begin a peace process with the Taliban ended in failure, but the incoming president may revive efforts to open negotiations.
Preliminary results of the run-off will be released on July 2 and final results on July 22.
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