KABUL — Former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai has taken the lead in Afghanistan's presidential election, a preliminary tally released Monday showed amid allegations of widespread voting fraud.

Ahmadzai, an academic who studied and taught in the USA, had 56.4% of 8 million ballots counted in a runoff June 14 against Abdullah Abdullah, who led the first round of balloting in April.

A final count in the election to replace longtime President Hamid Karzai should be complete July 22.

The Independent Election Commission acknowledged that vote rigging occurred and promised to launch a more extensive investigation before final results are released.

Release of the latest results were delayed by nearly a week after Abdullah, Afghanistan's former foreign minister, claimed Ahmadzai and Karzai engaged in massive fraud to deny him election. Abdullah said his campaign monitors recorded ballot box stuffing and other irregularities, charges that provoked demonstrations in Kabul and an audit.

The election represents the first transfer of power since the U.S.-led invasion in 2001 to oust the Taliban regime, which had granted sanctuary to al-Qaeda.

Monday's announcement sparked anger among Abdullah's supporters. "It's impossible that Abdullah loses – I am 100% sure he should have won," said Barialay Ahmadi, 33, of Kabul. "He had the higher percentage of votes than any other candidate in the first round."

Graeme Smith, an Afghanistan analyst with the International Crisis Group (ICG) in Kabul, warned that such attitudes could prompt more protests. "This could be a spark that ignites the anger of Abdullah's supporters," he said. "I think the legitimacy of the elections will rest in part on the degree to which the loser accepts the results."

The election has reinforced long-standing ethnic divisions in Afghanistan: Ahmadzai's support is primarily among the Pashtun, who are a majority, while most Tajik, the second-largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, support Abdullah, who is half-Pashtun, half-Tajik.

Omar Hamid, a Central Asia analyst at the think-tank IHS London, said Abdullah's supporters are likely to reject the new government and begin to assert their own authority in their strongholds. "You will find the disintegration of central government authority" before the government even takes office, Hamid said.

Disputed legitimacy could undermine the ability of the country's next president to combat a growing insurgency by the Taliban in the south and southeast.

Most foreign troops are set to leave Afghanistan by December. Karzai has refused to sign a security agreement with the United States that would leave a residual force of about 9,800 American troops beyond this year, but both Ahmadzai and Abdullah have pledged to sign it if elected.

"We are predicting that in 2014 and 2015, as foreign troops withdraw, that the level of violence will continue to escalate and that the government will face more and more serious challenges in holding on to remote district centers," Smith said.

With the withdrawal of troops, foreign aid is likely to ebb. That could mean a looming financial disaster.

"The problem is the Afghan government remains almost totally dependent on foreign aid," Hamid said. "It has not been able to create a vibrant economy on its own, and the reason for that is, of course, the security situation."

Whether or not the new president is able to negotiate with the Taliban and stem the tide of insurgency remains to be seen.

Khost, a province in eastern Afghanistan, saw higher voter turnout in the second round of elections than in the first, prompting some of the fraud allegations. The Taliban, which had called for a boycott of the election, had a greater stake in the later vote, Smith said.

"Insurgent groups that had previously denounced democracy as being a Western invention that can only result in fraud, seem to have thrown their muscle behind (Ahmadzai) in the second round," Smith said.

Some voters who supported Abdullah said they would tolerate an Ahmadzai victory despite possible fraud. "The supporters (of Abdullah) have no choice except to accept the results," said Ahmad Shafiq Mubasher, 37, of Kabul. "We cannot start any civil war."

Contributing: The Associated Press

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