Afghanistan's vote 'significant step' for democracy: White House

WASHINGTON (AFP) - The White House on Saturday welcomed Afghanistan's presidential elections as a "significant step" for the country's democracy, but emphasized the need for electoral commissions to legitimize the vote.

"The work of the electoral commissions in the weeks ahead will be particularly important," the White House said in a statement, commending "the voters, electoral bodies, and security forces for their commitment to the democratic process."

On Saturday, millions of Afghans defied Taleban threats in a run-off vote to decide whether former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah or ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani will lead the country into a new era of declining international military and civilian assistance.

"These elections are a significant step forward on Afghanistan's democratic path, and the courage and resolve of the Afghan people to make their voices heard is a testament to the importance of these elections to securing Afghanistan's future," the White House said.

The two candidates emerged as the leaders of an eight-man field in an April election, triggering the run-off as neither reached the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory.

However, fraud allegations are likely from both campaign teams, and a close count could lead to a contested result as the country undergoes its first democratic transfer of power.

President Hamid Karzai who has ruled Afghanistan since 2001 and was re-elected in a 2009 vote marred by ballot-box stuffing, is constitutionally barred from a third term in office.

Counting the ballot will take weeks. The preliminary result is due on July 2 and a final result on July 22.