KABUL, AFGHANISTAN - Election organisers on Monday declared Hamid Karzai president of Afghanistan for another five years, cancelling a run-off which threatened to descend into farce and further destabilise the country.
The announcement followed intense diplomatic pressure and sought to draw a line under two months of political chaos in a war-torn nation where 100,000 NATO and US troops are battling an increasingly virulent Taliban insurgency.
'We declare that Mr Hamid Karzai, who won the majority of votes in the first round and is the only candidate in the second round, is the elected president of Afghanistan,' Independent Election Commission (IEC) chairman Azizullah Ludin said.
The president's only challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, quit the contest on Sunday charging there were no safeguards to prevent repeat of massive fraud that threw out nearly a quarter of votes cast in August.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon met Karzai and Abdullah amid a concerted diplomatic push to bring a quick end to chaos that has undermined Western efforts to cultivate democracy in Afghanistan eight years after a US-led invasion.
Ludin, a Karzai appointee who oversaw a fraud-riddled first round, said the decision had been made in line with the provisions of Afghan electoral law and constitution and was 'consistent with the high interest of the Afghan people'.
The commission also wanted to save money, given 'the huge expense that the election requires' and cited security reasons as motives to cancel the poll, which had been scheduled to take place this Saturday.
Ban welcomed the decision to cancel the run-off and became the first world figure to congratulate Karzai on his second term.
The White House declared Karzai the 'legitimate leader of the country' but said it would begin 'hard conversations' with the new president as it mulls whether to deploy thousands more troops.
'President Karzai has been declared the winner of the Afghan election.... So obviously he's the legitimate leader of the country,' White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
President Barack Obama's decision on whether to commit more troops to the conflict would 'be made in the coming weeks,' he added.
'Now begin the hard conversations,' Gibbs said.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, whose country is the second biggest contributor of foreign troops in Afghanistan, telephoned Karzai to urge him to plot a course of national unity.
'They discussed the importance of the president moving quickly to set out a unifying programme for the future of Afghanistan,' said a spokesman for Brown.
NATO powers France and Germany urged Karzai to work with his defeated rival to end the political strife.
A senior European diplomat said there was great unease about staging such a contest at a time when a Taliban insurgency is gathering pace.
The diplomat said a second round would have been akin to 'a 15-round boxing match when after 12 rounds one of the two fighters says for one reason or another, 'I am leaving'", and yet the contest still goes on.
The IEC's deputy chief electoral officer Zakria Barakzai said the commission would have been in breach of article 61 of the constitution - which states two candidates must contest a run-off - had they allowed the contest to go ahead without Abdullah.
First-round turnout was as low as five per cent on August 20 in areas worst hit by the Taliban insurgency and with the militia threatening fresh attacks, the numbers voting this time were likely to have been even lower.
Analysts said Karzai, already tainted by the first round fraud, would struggle to proclaim his legitimacy in such circumstances.
After Karzai snubbed a series of demands promoted by his rival as a chance to avoid a repeat of massive first-round fraud, Abdullah said Sunday that he saw no point in standing, but stopped short of calling for a boycott.
The IEC initially said the run-off would take place as scheduled on Saturday, saying the deadline for Abdullah to withdraw had passed.
Insistent that first round fraud had been overstated, Karzai only agreed to a run-off under extensive diplomatic pressure.
After the August fraud, Abdullah demanded Karzai sack Ludin and suspend ministers who campaigned for the incumbent - conditions that were stonewalled.
Karzai's share of the vote in the first round fell to 49.67 per cent after around a quarter of all votes were deemed fraudulent. Abdullah won just over 30 per cent.