By Jeremy Laurence and Mirwais Harooni
KABUL (Reuters) - The Afghanistan election is set to go to a second round run-off between former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani after none of the candidates won an absolute majority, preliminary results showed on Saturday.
Abdullah finished top with 44.9 percent, followed by Ghani with 31.5 percent, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said. Zalmay Rassoul was a distant third with 11.5 percent.
"This is a preliminary outcome and will now go to the Independent Election Complaints Commission and they will work on this. As soon as they share their findings with us we will also announce it," IEC chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani told a news conference in Kabul.
The final result will not be known until May 14, as authorities investigate up to half a million votes suspected of being fraudulent. And even if they are counted, it is highly unlikely they would lift Abdullah over 50 percent.
"I think we are prepared and if it goes to second round yes we think it is doable and we have a tentative schedule of June 7 to start the second round," Nuristani said.
Hamid Karzai was constitutionally bound to step down as president after more than 12 years in power, at a time when Afghanistan readies to stand on its own feet as most foreign troops prepare to leave the country by the end of the year.
(Additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by Erica Billingham)