By Anand Gopal and Joe Lauria
KABUL — President Hamid Karzai failed to win a decisive majority in Afghanistan’s election, an official familiar with the ballot counting said, a development that has the two top candidates stepping up power-sharing talks to avoid a protracted runoff.
Results of an audit of suspect votes from the August polls are expected Saturday, Afghan authorities said. Investigators at the U.N.-backed Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission are expected to discard enough votes as fraudulent to trigger a runoff between Mr. Karzai and lead challenger Abdullah Abdullah in coming weeks.
According to Afghan and Western officials in Kabul, Mr. Karzai and Dr. Abdullah are exploring a deal to end the country’s political crisis by forgoing a second round and crafting a power-sharing arrangement.
The deal likely wouldn’t create a position for Dr. Abdullah, officials said, but could require Mr. Karzai to give key cabinet posts and governorships to members of Dr. Abdullah’s team.
Representatives from the Karzai and Abdullah camps deny making any deals, although both sides have said they are open to the notion in principle. Both sides are loath to engage in a runoff, which could be hobbled by low turnout, security risks and fraud. Officials with knowledge of the talks said it could take more than a week to reach an agreement.
“There is huge international pressure to accept the deal,” said one Western election observer familiar with the process. “They see this as a possible way out of a very difficult situation.”
Negotiations have intensified as the ECC prepares to deliver the results of its audit. The ECC is “triple-checking” its numbers, the official familiar with the audit said, before delivering them to Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission. The IEC conducted the polls and is widely accused of being biased in favor of Mr. Karzai.
The ECC review focused on three categories, the official said: Results from polling stations that the commission deemed had suspect ballots, complaints of fraud by individuals, and complaints referred by the IEC.
After the ECC audit of suspect polling-station results, Mr. Abdullah had 31% of the vote and Mr. Karzai 48% — shy of the majority required to avoid a runoff, the official said. When the ECC factors in results from its audit of complaints by individuals and the IEC, Mr. Karzai’s lead could fall to between 46% and 48%, the official said.
“Ballot box after ballot box was full of obviously fraudulent votes,” said another official who observed the audit process. “The majority of these were in favor of Karzai. If these are thrown out we are likely to be in the 47 to 49% range,” he added, referring to Mr. Karzai’s likely vote total after the audit.
A runoff could help defuse a political crisis that has dented the Afghan government’s credibility and prompted Washington to review its Afghanistan strategy. But it could also prolong the uncertainty in the country at a time when American death tolls are mounting and the Taliban’s reach is expanding. Election officials most likely won’t be ready for another round of voting until at least November, and the subsequent vote tally and certification could last well into January, officials said.
White House officials said Afghanistan’s electoral uncertainty has had an effect on their deliberations over war strategy, an acknowledgement that could mean further delays in a final decision by President Barack Obama on whether to send tens of thousands of additional troops to the country.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that, while the U.S. is awaiting word of whether a runoff would be ordered, the likelihood of Mr. Karzai winning a second round “is probably pretty high.”
In an interview with CNN, Mrs. Clinton said if Mr. Karzai emerges victorious, the U.S. would likely push for “measures of accountability” on his government aimed at curbing corruption.
– Peter Siegel contributed to this article.