“Initial results show that the president has got a majority,” Deen Mohammed, campaign manager for incumbent President Hamid Karzai, told Reuters.
But Karzai’s chief rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, told Reuters: “I’m ahead. Initial results from the provinces show that I have more than 50 percent of the vote.”
Counting began immediately after the polls closed Thursday, and all polling stations are required to make their numbers public as they are tabulated, in order to prevent fraud.
But official election results might not be available for at least two weeks. U.S. officials had hoped to avoid public statements by the candidates before then, fearing that such statements might inflame protests over the results.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Monday that she expected people to “refrain from speculation until results are announced.”
Afghan election officials also called for patience.
“It is the job of the election commission to release the results,” said Independent Election Commission official Zekria Barakzai.
And Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s special representative for Iraq and Afghanistan, met Friday with three of the leading candidates — Karzai, Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani — to urge them not to declare victory prematurely.
Holbrooke told reporters, “We always knew it would be a disputed election. I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days.”
In general, American and other officials called Thursday’s election a success.
The poll was the second in the nearly eight years since an American-led invasion toppled the Taliban. However, the security situation in the country had deteriorated so much since the last invasion that many observers worried that the government would not be able to hold the election at all.
But it appeared threats of violence from the Taliban were not enough to derail the election.
“On the basis of what we’ve seen so far, it seems clear that the Taliban utterly failed to disrupt these elections,” Holbrook said.
Still, turnout was far lower than the 70 percent who voted in 2004 — Barakzai estimated it was between 40 percent and 50 percent — and violence in Kabul, Kandahar and other cities killed at least 26 people on election day.
Violence particularly suppressed turnout in the insurgent strongholds in the south of the country — where the Taliban had threatened to bomb polling stations and cut off fingers stained with the purple ink used by election monitors to mark who has voted — leading to worries that low turnout in those areas might affect the legitimacy of the vote.
Still, some voters made it to the polls despite the threats.
“Yes, I am scared,” Akhter Mohmmad, who voted in the southern town of Khan Neshin, told the New York Times.
“I am happy to use my vote, and I hope things will change and peace will knock at our door,” Zainab, a voter in Kandahar, told the paper.