President Hamid Karzai's main rival for the Afghan presidency called on Monday for a run-off to ensure a legitimate leader rules the country after elections tainted by allegations of mass fraud.
Abdullah Abdullah, trailing significantly behind Karzai with nearly all the votes counted from the August 20 presidential election, said a two-man run-off would ensure the winner had credibility and the poll itself was fair.
"The faith of the people in the process will be restored," the former foreign minister told AFP in an interview, referring to a run-off.
"It will be to the benefit of the process, more than any other thing.
"The whole thing is not to get something which is for my benefit but for the benefit of the people," he said.
The drawn-out counting process after Afghanistan's only second direct presidential election and the first organised by Afghans has been complicated by the need to audit and recount hundreds of thousands of votes.
With votes from 95 per cent of polling stations tallied -- of which 2.15 per cent are under investigation -- Karzai leads with 54.3 per cent against Abdullah's 28.1 per cent.
Under Afghanistan's electoral law, a run-off is required if no candidate secures an outright first-round majority of 50 per cent plus one vote.
Officials say investigations into allegations of massive fraud could take weeks and delay the announcement of the winner, which was originally scheduled for September 17.
A Western diplomat in Kabul, speaking on condition of anonymity, said preparations are under way for a second round of voting, if necessary, before Afghanistan's harsh winter sets in.
Abdullah has been at the forefront of allegations, directed at Karzai, of state-sponsored fraud including vote-buying, ballot stuffing and proxy voting.
The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) said last week it found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" and officials have said up to half a million ballots could be set aside while investigations proceed.
Abdullah, wearing cufflinks under a blue designer blazer with brass buttons, told AFP that under normal circumstances, a criminal investigation would be ordered into the fraud allegations.
If all the fraudulent votes are discounted from the final tally, he said, Karzai will fall short of the 50 per cent-plus-one threshold needed for victory.
"I want the fraudulent votes to be excluded," he said, adding: "My assumption is that it will go to a second round."
"Even with corrections made, if President Karzai wins in a second round, not based on fraud, based on rules, it will help the country," he said.
"It will help because his supporters will think that it was like that, the rest of the people of Afghanistan will think it was like that.
"It will give him legitimacy," he said.
Abdullah said he was in close contact with representatives of Afghanistan's Western backers -- "including diplomatic missions in Kabul, the United Nations and international organisations" -- who wanted a fraud-free resolution.
"Everybody is hoping the ECC process will bring the clean results out, that's what everyone is hoping. They are assuring us that the credibility of the process is important for them."
Abdullah's call for a run-off against Karzai came as Western officials in Kabul confirmed a US media report that the Independent Election Commission had altered its rules on the counting process to include fraudulent votes.
"The previous rules put Karzai below 50 per cent, and so they decided to change the counting process in order to ensure that he got the necessary number," one official told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The commission was not immediately reachable for comment.
Abdullah referred to the reports as further evidence of endemic corruption in Afghan politics, and a reason he will not accept any invitation from Karzai, should he win, to join his government.
"I want to bring change, but the system is so corrupted that this is not what I want to be part of," he said. A Western diplomat, who also requested anonymity, said Abdullah would lose credibility if he joined a Karzai administration.
"If he wants to cast himself as an opposition leader, he can't join Karzai, those waters are too muddy for him to swim in," the diplomat said.