A fraud probe into Afghan elections has trimmed President Hamid Karzai's vote share to just 47 percent, a report said Friday, while a senior aide conceded a second round could be in the offing.
The much-awaited tally by the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission will trigger a run-off between Karzai and his nearest competitor, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, because Karzai's portion of the August 20 vote was lowered to below 50 percent, The Washington Post reported.
One official familiar with the tally, due to be finalized Friday, described the results to the newspaper as "stunning."
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission had given Karzai 54.6 percent in its preliminary results, which would position him for a second five-year term. Those results gave Abdullah around 28 percent of the vote.
But Afghanistan's ambassador to the United States, Said Tayeb Jawad, conceded for the first time Thursday that the disputed elections could enter a second round and pushed to hold the run-off quickly.
He said he has not personally spoken to election authorities who are expected to make an announcement within days.
But Jawad, who has served as Karzai's chief of staff and press secretary, became the first member of his circle to speak publicly of plans for a new vote after Western-led allegations of major fraud in the polls.
"A run-off is a likely scenario," Jawad said at the US Institute of Peace.
"If that's what it is, everyone should work very hard to make that happen."
Jawad said the next round of presidential elections should be held quickly, charging that a delay would create headaches for other nations -- including the United States, where the administration of President Barack Obama mulls sending more troops to fight Taliban insurgents.
"The constitution requires a run-off be done within two weeks but that's impossible. So four weeks will push it into early November and that's the latest that it will happen because after that it will be extremely cold, especially in northern Afghanistan," Jawad said.
"But if it's delayed to spring, this is clearly a recipe for disaster -- this creates a lot of confusion, a lot of indecisiveness and also further complicated relations" with the outside world, he added.
Karzai has rejected charges of widespread irregularities as "totally fabricated" and "politically instigated," testing the patience of Western nations that were his key backers after the US-led military operation in 2001 that toppled the Taliban regime.
European Union observers said a quarter of all votes, or 1.5 million ballots, were suspect.
Afghan election authorities are reviewing disputed ballots. A senior US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, expected a final announcement on Sunday or Monday.
Ballots listing both candidates, printed in London in anticipation of a possible run-off, have already arrived at the UN mission in Kabul, a US official in Afghanistan told the Post.
The necessary indelible ink was also already on hand and polling station kits were expected to be readied for distribution this week, the daily said.
A run-off was planned if Karzai's valid votes fall below 50 percent as a result of the investigations, although questions remain about how effective a new poll would be.
"The big challenge (for new elections) is security," the US official told the Post.
Abdullah said in Kabul that he was hopeful investigations into ballot-stuffing allegations would result in a run-off.
But the urbane former foreign minister warned that if a run-off were not called, "those who are behind the fraud and tolerate fraud will be responsible for the consequences."
Fellow candidate Ashraf Ghani said on a visit to Washington that Karzai and Abdullah so distrusted each other and election authorities that only a deal between the two could break the impasse.
"When legitimacy is called into question, repeating an election with the same people and the same institutions... becomes problematic," he told US public broadcaster PBS.
Jawad was unusually open about Karzai's disagreements with Obama, who has been cooler toward the Afghan leader than his predecessor, George W. Bush.
While describing relations as improved, Jawad said that early in the Obama administration, "there was some oversimplification of the issues" and "even there was this lack of knowledge" about Afghanistan's complex ethnic patchwork.
Obama has made the fight against Islamic extremism a chief focus of his young presidency, and has been weighing a decision on whether to send tens of thousands more US troops to Afghanistan.