KABUL - Former finance minister Ashraf Ghani was declared Afghanistan’s next president on Sunday, hours after signing a power-sharing deal with his rival Abdullah Abdullah that ended a prolonged standoff over the disputed result.

Allegations of massive fraud in the June 14 vote sparked a political crisis as both candidates claimed victory, paralysing the country at a key moment with US-led troops winding down their 13-year war against the Taliban.

When the long-awaited “unity government” deal was finally signed, Ghani embraced Abdullah briefly at a low-key ceremony in the presidential palace that lasted less than 10 minutes.

Abdullah will become “chief executive officer” (CEO), a role similar to prime minister - setting up a tricky balance of power as Afghanistan enters a new era.

Neither candidate spoke at the palace ceremony, and it remained uncertain when they would address the nation or when the unity agreement would be officially published.

“The Independent Election Commission declares Dr Ashraf Ghani as the president, and thus announces the end of election process,” commission chief Ahmad Yousaf Nuristani later told reporters.

“During the election process fraud was committed from all sides. That has concerned people.”

In a move likely to trigger complaints over transparency, Nuristani gave no figures for the winning margin, turnout or the number of fraudulent ballot papers thrown out in an UN-supervised audit that checked every individual vote.

Ghani was widely acknowledged to be on the brink of the presidency after coming well ahead in preliminary results released before the audit began. Under the constitution, the president wields almost total control, and the new government structure will face a major test as the security and economic outlook worsens.

“Hamid Karzai wishes the elected president Dr Ashraf Ghani and the CEO Dr Abdullah Abdullah success based on the agreement between them,” said a statement from the outgoing president.

The vote count has been plagued by setbacks amid allegations of massive fraud, emboldening the Taliban insurgents and further weakening the aid-dependent economy.

As tensions rose in Kabul, the United Nations and United States pushed hard for a “unity government” to avoid a return to the ethnic divisions of the 1990s civil war, which ended with the Taliban taking power in 1996.

A ruling coalition between opposing camps is likely to be uneasy. Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter and foreign minister, draws his support from Tajiks and other northern ethnic groups. Ghani, an ex-World Bank economist, is backed by Pashtun tribes of the south and east.

“There will be two powers in the government, and it will be very difficult for them to work together,” Sediq Mansoor Ansari, an analyst and director of the Civil Societies Federation, told AFP. “I think the people of Afghanistan will wonder about their votes, and how their votes have been played with.”

According to a copy of the unity government document seen by AFP, the CEO could become the official prime minister in two years’ time - a major change to the strongly presidential style of government forged by Karzai since 2001.

Dividing up other government posts could also create friction after the long and mercurial reign of Karzai, who built up a nationwide network of patronage.

A spokesman for Abdullah said September 29 had been pencilled in for the inauguration.

Meanwhile, Pakistan  welcomed the signing by the presidential candidates Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani of an agreement on the formation of a government of national unity in Afghanistan. “The government and the people of Pakistan welcome the agreement signed by the two presidential candidates in Afghanistan regarding the establishment of a government of national unity,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement.

“Consistent with our support for a peaceful democratic transition, we regard the signing of this agreement as a positive development,” the statement furthersaid.

The ministry said the deal had been made possible due to the wise and sagacious leadership of Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah. “We congratulate the two leaders and the brotherly people of Afghanistan and reaffirm Pakistan’s support for all their efforts to build a peaceful, stable and unified Afghanistan,” the statement added.

US, UN HAIL AFGHAN AGREEMENT

Special Correspondent from United Nations adds: The United States and the United Nations have congratulated Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah for striking an agreement on the formation of a government of national unity.

“This was a moment of extraordinary statesmanship. These two men have put the people of Afghanistan first, and they’ve ensured that the first peaceful democratic transition in the history of their country begins with national unity,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement.

Kerry said, “Americans know very well that the road to democracy is contentious and challenging, but it’s a road that leads to the best place, the US diplomat noted, after the two Afghan leaders, who fought a bitter election campaign, signed an agreement to pave the way for democratic transition in their conflict-hit country, which is heading toward security transfer from the US-led coalition to Afghan forces.

“It doesn’t happen overnight. We’ve had our own contentious elections and witnessed their aftermath. I’ve lived some of them. But if my recent visits to Kabul and the hours upon hours on the phone with these two men have taught me anything, it’s how invested Afghanistan is in this historic effort,” said top American diplomat Kerry, who undertook travels to Afghanistan to push for a power sharing deal among political rivals.

He also referred to the expected signing of the bilateral security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan that would shape the future American engagement with the country, as it moves to American forces withdrawal by the end of 2016, a deadline set by President Barack Obama.

The Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General, Jan Kubis, who formally witnessed the signing in Kabul, said the uncertainty of the past months has taken a heavy toll on Afghanistan’s security, economy and governance, according to a UN Press release issued at UN Headquarters in New York.