KABUL - Final results in Afghanistan's disputed presidential vote are expected to be released next week, and an election official said on Wednesday that a winner would be announced whether or not the two rival candidates forge a promised power-sharing deal.
Declaring a victor before a negotiated settlement could mark a new, dangerous phase of the crisis surrounding the vote to succeed President Hamid Karzai, even as most foreign troops prepare to withdraw by the end of the year.
Two months of tension over the fraud-tainted election have already marred the smooth transition that the U.S.-led military force had hoped would mark its exit 13 years after the invasion to oust the Taliban's radical Islamist regime.
Continued instability would provide new openings for the Taliban insurgency against the newly trained Afghan security forces.
Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani was declared the winner in preliminary results of the June 14 run-off with 56 percent of the vote. His rival, ex-Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, has charged massive fraud and said he would reject the results if an ongoing audit does not throw out enough ballots to make him president.
Both candidates have pledged to form a unity government and abide by the final results of a U.N.-monitored recount and fraud audit. But talks about power sharing have broken down.
Final results have been delayed several weeks, forcing Karzai to stay in office past this month's scheduled inauguration of a new leader.
Sareer Ahmad Barmak, a member of the Independent Election Commission, said the final results would likely be released next week, though he could not give a specific date.
"We need two to three days for the technical issues of the vote and then the final result will be ready to be announced," said Barmak.
He added that the commission was not required to wait for Ghani and Abdullah to reach a deal before announcing the winner, and it won't delay any longer if the final results are ready before any agreement.
"We will do our job," Barmak said. "But it would be better if the candidates reach a deal."
Ghani, who is widely expected to emerge the winner even after fraudulent votes are disqualified, was scheduled to make an announcement later on Wednesday. Aides have indicated it will be his final offer to Abdullah over how much power would go with a new chief executive position to be created for the election's loser.
The chief executive job was part of a compromise brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last month as Abdullah's supporters began taking to the streets and violence was feared. Declaring a winner without a political deal could spark a new round of street protests that could deteriorate into violence or be targeted by Taliban attacks. Some of Abdullah's powerful backers also have vowed to create a parallel government.
The dispute also could reignite ethnic tensions that in the past have fueled civil war in Afghanistan. Ghani is strongly associated with the Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnicity, while Abdullah draws much of his support from ethnic Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks.
Abdullah on Monday declared he would never accept a fraud-tainted result, but he has not said what his next move will be if the results declare Ghani the winner.