LONDON Afghanistan's August 20 presidential election could go to a second round after a campaign that has been more competitive than expected, Britain's ambassador in Kabul said on Wednesday.
President Hamid Karzai is viewed as favorite to win re-election, but Ambassador Mark Sedwill made clear he had doubts over whether any candidate could achieve the 50 percent of the vote needed to win in the first round.
"I think it's genuinely in the balance as to whether there will be a second round," Sedwill said in a news conference by video link from Kabul.
A shortage of polling or canvassing data made it hard to tell how candidates were doing, he said.
Karzai faces 36 challengers with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani among few serious contenders. If a second round is needed, it will be held in early October.
Sedwill said several of the candidates had run very energetic campaigns.
"The competitiveness of the campaign has taken many of us here by surprise," he said, noting there had been televised debates between candidates and huge election rallies.
Between 15 and 17 million Afghans are registered to vote, British officials say.
Election experts believed the Afghan poll was being held in "probably the most challenging circumstances for elections that they have ever encountered," Sedwill said.
Taliban insurgents have vowed to disrupt the election and have called on Afghans to boycott the ballot.
Violence across Afghanistan this year has reached its worst levels since U.S.-led forces toppled the Taliban in 2001 and escalated further after U.S. and British troops launched offensives in southern Helmand over the past two months.
The south is Karzai's traditional powerbase and if turnout there is depressed by violence it could hurt his vote.
An Afghan government map obtained by Reuters on Wednesday showed almost half the country at high risk of attack by insurgents or under "enemy control."
Apart from security problems, Afghanistan is among the poorest countries in the world and two thirds of the population are illiterate, Sedwill said.
"We have to recognize ... that these elections are therefore going to be pretty rough and ready in places. They won't be perfect," he said.
The test of success would be whether they were credible, secure and inclusive enough, said Sedwill.
On polling day, community defense groups and Afghan security forces will provide security at polling stations, with international forces taking a relatively low profile, he said.
(Editing by Charles Dick)