Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks during an interview in Kabul April 20, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)
Afghanistan's presidential election is set for a second-round vote, preliminary results showed Saturday, as opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah and former academic Ashraf Ghani both failed to secure a decisive victory.
"Based on our results, it appears that the election goes to the second round," Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, head of the Independent Election Commission, told a press conference in Kabul.
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, secured 44.9 percent of the vote, with his main rival Ghani on 31.5 percent, according to the preliminary results.
The final official result is set to be announced on May 14 after a period for adjudication of hundreds of complaints over alleged fraud.
As no candidate gained more than 50 percent, a run-off between the two leading names is required under the Afghan constitution.
Nuristani, who announced that the second round would be held on June 7, said 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 an impressive sign of women's improving status in Afghanistan, a deeply conservative Muslim country.
The eventual winner will have to oversee the fight against a resilient Taliban insurgency as 51,000 US-led NATO combat troops leave Afghanistan this year, as well as strengthen an economy that relies on declining aid money.
Another expensive and potentially violent election could be avoided by negotiations between the candidates in the coming weeks, but Abdullah has dismissed talks of a possible power-sharing deal.
Ghani, a former World Bank economist, has also vowed to fight on in a run-off.
Serious fraud allegations are being investigated in the vote to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, who has ruled Afghanistan since the Islamist Taliban regime was ousted in 2001.
The 2009 election, when Karzai retained power, was marred by fraud in a chaotic process that shook confidence in the multinational effort to develop Afghanistan and also marked a sharp decline in relations with the United States.
Votes involved in alleged ballot-box stuffing and other cheating have not been counted, and Saturday's announcement is expected to be followed by fierce debate over disputed voting papers.
Preliminary results were delayed by two days due to fraud investigations, with officials vowing to sift out all suspect votes before they were counted.
Five NATO soldiers died on Saturday in a helicopter crash in the south of the country, officials said, adding that the cause of the incident was being investigated.
Karzai, who is constitutionally barred from serving a third term, has pledged to stay neutral in the election.
But he was widely thought to have backed 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.
All leading candidates have pledged to explore peace talks with the Taliban and sign a deal with the US that could allow 10,000 US troops to stay on after this year on a training and counter-terrorism mission.
Karzai's surprise decision to refuse to sign the bilateral security agreement last year after agreeing to the draft text plunged relations between Afghanistan and its biggest donor to a new low.
The outgoing president has had several public disagreements with Washington in recent years, underlining efforts to establish his reputation as an independent, nationalist leader despite relying on US aid and military power during his reign.