Uncertainty looms for businesses in Afghanistan amid delayed presidential election results and draining foreign aid. (Reuters)

Afghanistan’s presidential election last month produced no outright winner, authorities announced Thursday, forcing a June 14 runoff between two pro-Western front-runners who favor signing a long-delayed security pact with Washington.

The formation of a new government based on the second round’s results will mark the first peaceful transition of power in Afghan history. An orderly handover is also considered crucial for the nation’s stability after decades of warfare.

Announcing the final results of the April 5 presidential vote, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, chairman of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, said Thursday that no single candidate among eight contenders won the race to succeed President Hamid Karzai, who could not run for reelection because of a term limit.

“None of the candidates secured 51 percent, and the election will go into a second round,” Nuristani said. He said more than 7 million Afghans — about 58 percent of the country’s 12 million registered voters — turned out to vote, despite Taliban threats to attack polling places or punish those who participated in the election. Nuristani said 36 percent of those who voted were women.

Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who became a top opposition leader during Karzai’s tenure, received 45 percent of the vote. In the runoff, Abdullah will face Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister and World Bank economist, who came in second with 31.6 percent of the vote.

A national poll conducted in mid-March by Kabul-based ACSOR-Surveys found a virtual dead heat in a potential runoff between Abdullah and Ghani, driven by ethnic and regional divisions. But more than seven in 10 Afghans in the poll said they would accept the eventual winner as the country’s legitimate leader.

Both men will have three weeks to campaign, Nuristani said. Final results are to be released July 22.

Ghani said Thursday that he welcomes the runoff. “We accept the result of the first round and are fully prepared to refer to the valorous, Muslim and brave Afghan people to freely decide” which candidate they want as president, he said. He has vowed to crack down on corruption and end what he has called a culture of impunity in Afghanistan. Abdullah also accepted the first-round results, saying at a news conference, “God willing, the victory will be of our team.”

Both men said they want national unity.

Security threats, stemming mostly from Taliban attacks and possible ethnic tensions, are regarded as main challenges to the process. Ethnic Pashtuns, who make up 42 percent of the population, have traditionally ruled Afghanistan and hold most top government posts, but they also form the bulk of the Taliban insurgency. Ethnic Tajiks account for the
second-largest share of the population, 27 percent, and have been a key bulwark against the Taliban since the radical Islamist group was formed in the 1990s.

Abdullah, 53, a former ophthalmologist of mixed Pashtun-Tajik parentage, was a close friend and adviser of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Tajik commander who was assassinated in September 2001 and whose U.S.-backed Northern Alliance forces captured Kabul from the Taliban two months later. Ghani, 65, is an ethnic Pashtun from the influential Ahmadzai tribe who finished fourth in the 2009 presidential election.

Zalmay Rassoul, widely considered Karzai’s favored candidate, came in third in last month’s balloting, with 11.4 percent of the vote. He recently threw his support to Abdullah, as did another candidate, Gul Agha Sherzai, boosting Abdullah’s position for the second round.

The runoff means that Karzai will remain in office for several additional weeks. Under the constitution, he can remain in charge until his successor is elected.

It also means a further delay in the inking of the security pact that Washington wanted to have in place by the end of 2013.

Both Ghani and Abdullah are viewed as moderate and have pledged to work with the United States to keep up pressure on the Taliban. They have also said that they would sign the security deal with the United States, which allows a residual U.S. military presence in Afghanistan beyond a deadline to withdraw combat troops by the end of this year. Karzai has refused to sign the accord, insisting on leaving it to his successor.

The April 5 election was hailed as a major success for Afghanistan because millions of people voted despite the Taliban threats. The insurgents did not launch large-scale attacks on voting day, but did stage high-profile assaults in the run-up to the election, including two on key election commission offices in Kabul.

Nuristani urged Afghans to come out and vote again in the runoff.

Abdullah refused to go into a second round against Karzai after the 2009 presidential election, which was marred by allegations of widespread electoral fraud in favor of the incumbent.

Nuristani said election commission staffers involved in fraud in last month’s voting will be removed from their positions and prosecuted to ensure that the runoff is clean.

Zekria Barakzai, an observer with an international election monitoring group, said, “Our concern is about the enthusiasm of people in the second round, fear of campaigning on ethnic lines and the election security itself.”

Jan Kubis, the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, commended the candidates for running “a hard-fought but positive campaign” and said he hopes that “the prevailing respectful tone seen in the first round is preserved in the weeks ahead,” the Associated Press reported. “Candidates have a responsibility to call on their supporters to refrain from inflammatory rhetoric, intimidation and threats,” he said.