Afghanistan's contested presidential election has the potential to lay the foundations for a political system in which opposing factions draw broad support and power changes hands at the ballot box.
With the result still too close to call, leading candidates, the Afghan government and the international community appear to be preparing for the possibility of a second round run-off.
The main contenders for the top job -- President Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister Abdullah
Abdullah -- claimed they were ahead based on numbers their campaign offices were gathering.
But the official result is not expected before September 3, according to the Independent Electoral Commission, and both men have been asked by Afghanistan's foreign partners to refrain from public statements on the outcome.
"It is just too close to call," said one international consultant.
Afghans voted in presidential and provincial council elections on Thursday in a poll which international observers said was marred by violence and allegations of fraud, but was in the main acceptable.
The election was only the second for president in the country's history and the first Afghans have organised for themselves, the culmination of weeks of energetic campaigning.
Foreign allies see it as a vital milestone in Afghanistan's development under the guidance of the US and the international community, which together bankrolled the vote and have more than 100,000 troops in the country.
The shadow of Taliban violence was blamed for quashing participation in southern regions where the insurgents are strong, which is likely to see turnout unevenly distributed between the south and the relatively stable north.
"Violence and intimidation disenfranchised voters in a significant portion of the country," US-based election monitor Democracy International said.
"In more secure areas, however, Afghans generally were able to cast votes freely," it said.
Preliminary indications from unofficial sources are that Karzai and Abdullah have been able to mobilise voters outside their traditional strongholds -- Karzai in the south, Abdullah in the north -- and are running neck-and-neck.
"We have an election that may not result in 50 percent of the vote going to either of them," analyst and author Waheed Mujda told Afghan television, referring to the minimum requirement of 50 percent plus one vote to win.
Abdullah has given a filip to the process -- for weeks seen as a foregone conclusion for Karzai -- and raised the prospect that a credible opposition could emerge and power be swapped according to the will of the electorate.
Abdullah has a long history in the public eye, having gained a profile as a spokesman and aide for famous anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, assassinated in 2001, before becoming foreign minister under Karzai.
"He has said he sees this (election) being a stepping stone to next year's parliamentary election and a move towards the emergence of political parties and I think he still has that ambition," said a Western official.
"He may decide that he would rather be a constructive opposition. He is only 48 and he can afford to play a long game."
Fulsome praise for campaigning has turned to hopes that a spirit of consensus can be carried into government once the outcome is known.
"What we would like to see from the political class is a national consensus about the agenda for the next five years," the official said.
"We would like to see a strong parliament and a move towards the emergence of political parties, and it would be good if they all rallied around to work together with that aim," he said.
"It is very difficult to have a strong parliament -- it needs an opposition in order not to remain mired in the type of power patronage, based on deal making and warlordism, that we have had."
Diplomats and analysts said Karzai told US special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, in a meeting in Kabul on Friday, that he did not believe a second round would be necessary.
But one independent foreign observer told AFP a run-off now appeared likely.
If there is no clear victor, a second round would take place two weeks after the final results are announced on September 17, an IEC official said.