KABUL (Reuters) - Tension was high in Afghanistan on Friday as electoral authorities prepared to announce whether incumbent Hamid Karzai would be forced into a runoff presidential election against his main rival.
Afghanistan has been gripped by uncertainty since the August 20 election, marred by allegations of widespread fraud.
The bitter process has sparked tension between Karzai and the West and helped delay a U.S. decision on sending extra troops to Afghanistan at a time when the insurgency is at its fiercest.
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Karzai would probably prevail if the election went to a second round and that President Barack Obama would make a decision on his own timetable.
“It is likely that they will find that President Karzai got very close to the 50+1 percent,” Clinton told CNN in an interview. “So I think one can conclude that the likelihood of him winning a second round is probably pretty high.”
The U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, or ECC, said it was close to unveiling its findings of a probe into fraud allegations -- a crucial announcement likely to determine whether the runoff will be necessary.
After two months of uncertainty, officials rushed through last-minute negotiations and meetings in Kabul on Friday before the announcement, expected any time over the next two days.
“The situation is getting tense with each passing hour,” said one official familiar with the talks.
If mandated, a runoff pitting Karzai against former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah would be due within two weeks.
In the United States, the controversy surrounding the vote has been a major factor in the Obama administration’s review of its Afghanistan strategy as U.S. troops struggle to contain the spreading Taliban insurgency.
Underscoring concerns about a rising tide of violence, four U.S. service members were killed in a bomb attack in southern Afghanistan, the NATO-led force said.
The Washington Post cited officials familiar with the results as saying the ECC investigation had already cut Karzai’s vote tally to about 47 percent. He won 54.6 percent of the vote, according to preliminary figures.
If enough votes were disqualified to push his total below 50 percent, Karzai would face Abdullah in a second round -- barring possible legal steps to invalidate the decision or an Abdullah decision to withdraw. Afghanistan’s ambassador in Washington, Said Jawad, has said a second round of voting was “likely.”
The ECC is examining about a quarter of the 5.66 million votes cast before giving its verdict to the Afghan election commission, which will then make a formal announcement on the fate of the vote.
“We are still working today,” said Nellika Little, an ECC spokeswoman, adding that the commission was looking to issue its ruling around Saturday. “We don’t want to rush it. There is a lot of work to do.”
The onset of the bitter Afghan winter, which makes much of the country impassable, could cause problems for a second round. Security and the logistics of organizing another vote in one of the world’s poorest nation are also of concern.
Abdullah has signaled his openness to a possible compromise while calling for a second vote.
“Should it go to the second round? My preference is going for the second round,” he told reporters on Thursday.
“We are ready and I have not dismantled the infrastructure for campaigning though the campaign will be different this time and (under) any circumstances I will pursue the agenda for change.”
Editing by Jerry Norton and Peter Cooney