Hamid Karzai and his chief challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, were running neck and neck in the Afghan election according to figures for the preliminary count released yesterday.
But the partial count was overshadowed by a series of car bomb blasts in the southern city of Kandahar which killed at least 41 people and wounded 64. The five explosions occurred close to the offices of foreign aid and development agencies, hospital officials and police said.
Only 10 per cent of votes in the election have been tallied so far, most from the northern provinces where Abdullah has his natural constituency. A spokesman for Democracy International said the figures were too few to give a clear picture of the outcome.
"Almost none of the results from Herat, Kandahar and Mazar-e-Sharif – three of the largest cities in the country – have been released," he said.
On present form neither Mr Karzai nor Mr Abdullah is close to the 51 per cent needed to win outright in the first round, suggesting the race will go to a run-off in October.
Mr Karzai, the incumbent president, has polled 212,927 votes, or 40.6 per cent of the current total, while Dr Abdullah has 202,889, or 38.7 per cent. Two other candidates, Ramazan Bashordost, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, got 53,740 or 11 per cent of the vote while former finance minister Ashraf Ghani got 15,143, slightly over 3 per cent.
To date it is the Tajik provinces, which favour Dr Abdullah, where the majority of votes have been counted, but the picture is sure to change when southern Pashtun provinces such as Kandahar and Helmand come into the equation. Suspicions were being voiced last night that the country's Independent Election Commission had deliberately published the results from the north first to defuse protests from Dr Abdullah's supporters, and that it is 'drip-feeding' results to dissipate outrage at a large majority being given in the coming days to Mr Karzai.
The organisation has already been accused of bias and colluding in fraud. Azizullah Lodin, a former advisor to Mr Karzai, was appointed head of the organisation by decree and since then the President had repeatedly ignored calls from opposition parties to have the posting ratified by parliament.
The Karzai campaign has already claimed a landslide victory in the first round, with one minister boasting that it had received 68 per cent of the votes, 18 per cent more than needed for outright victory.
This led to a blistering response from Dr Abdullah before the release of yesterday's figure in which he accused the President of being responsible for "state-crafted, widespread fraud".
At a press conference in his Kabul garden he accused President Karzai of trying to "steal the verdict of a nation" and pledged to use every legal channel to challenge the results.
Laughing with contempt at the audacity of the cheating, the former foreign minister presented what he said was concrete evidence of wide-scale vote rigging.
He held up a book of ballot papers still bound to their stubs, almost all of which were ticked in support of the president. He said three young boys had managed to steal them from a polling station in the south where dozens more were being filled out and posted into ballot boxes.
He then played a series of covertly filmed videos which he said showed a provincial head of the Independent Election Commission in Ghanzi stuffing ballot boxes with pro-Karzai votes.
"If this wide-scale rigging is ignored, this is the sort of regime that will be imposed on Afghanistan for the next five years," he said. "It's important the international community does not turn a blind eye."
A former foreign minister, Abdullah insisted he would not, as has been mooted, accept a Karzai victory in return for a place in the next government. "I don't want this fraud to decide the future of Afghanistan" he said.
Yesterday's statistics showed only about five million out of an estimated 15 million eligible voters went to the polls. The figures for voting are expected to be especially low in the south where Taliban threats were particularly intimidating. Mr Karzai's opponents claim that it is there, in the President's main vote base, that ballot stuffing has been most widespread, to ensure that he obtains a majority.
The elections have been taking place against the backdrop of British, US and other Western troops fighting, and dying, in a conflict which shows no sign of letting up. Yesterday four more American soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb, bringing the number of foreign troops killed in Afghanistan this year to 295, the largest number killed in eight years of war.
Last night Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, urged caution over the election result. "You don't call a result with 10 per cent. It's far too early to call."