ISLAMABAD - Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) confirmed Saturday it had delayed the planned release of preliminary results of the Sept. 28 presidential polls.
The commission's chief, Hawa Alam Nuristani, made the widely anticipated announcement at a late evening news conference in Kabul on the day the commission was supposed to officially deliver first results.
Nuristani apologized to Afghans for not being able to meet the deadline, but she defended the decision to delay the results, saying it would "further ensure the transparency of the [electoral] process" and restore the people's confidence in it.
The chief election commissioner promised to release preliminary results as soon as possible but did not say exactly when that would happen.
Two senior IEC members, while speaking to VOA on Friday, predicted results would be delayed by at least one week.
Problems from the start
Election officials said they had from the outset faced issues in collecting and transferring massive amounts of data to the main IEC computer server from biometric devices used to record voter fingerprints and pictures. A time-consuming exercise of identifying fraudulent votes was cited as another major factor for the slow data entry.
The fourth Afghan presidential election was already under scrutiny for a record-low turnout of about 26 percent and allegations of fraud. The final turnout was expected to drop further as the IEC was expected to disqualify an estimated 700,000 of the 2.7 million votes cast last month for not meeting anti-fraud rules.
All previous elections held in Afghanistan since the ouster of the Taliban government in 2001 were marred by allegations of widespread fraud and rigging, prompting the IEC to use biometric devices for the first time in the just concluded presidential polls.
While security concerns stemming from violent Taliban attacks on the election process were mainly blamed for the low turnout, the polling was marred by widespread irregularities and allegations of fraud.
The United Nations, in a report released this week, noted that election-related attacks had killed 85 Afghan civilians and injured 373 others.
Both front-runners, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have already claimed victories, raising fears of a repeat of what happened in the 2014 fraud-marred presidential election. The United States at the time had to intervene to help the two men negotiate a power-sharing deal, ending months of nationwide chaos.
On Wednesday, U.S. acting Assistant Secretary of State Alice Wells underscored the need for a credible outcome of the election and called on all candidates to avoid declaring victory before official results were released.
"We welcome the IEC's intention to conduct all necessary anti-fraud measures before it announces the preliminary result. An accurate result is more important than a rushed one," Wells told reporters in Kabul after her meetings with Ghani, Abdullah and election commission officials.
Abdullah and Ghani have both pledged support for the IEC to take as much time as needed to deliver a transparent outcome.
"The Afghan people yearn to hear about the results of the presidential elections, but we respect the Independent Election Commission's decision to postpone announcing the results to ensure fairness, transparency and accountability of the final vote," Ghani tweeted shortly after the delay was announced.