Both sides claim lead in Afghan vote

Saturday, August 22, 2009
An Afghan worker of the election commission office unloads ballot boxes to be counted at the counting center Friday in Kandahar province, south of Kabul, Afghanistan. (MUSADEQ SADEQ ~ Associated Press)

KABUL -- Both main candidates for Afghan president claimed to be ahead Friday after an election marred by violence, spotty turnout and fraud allegations -- threatening U.S. hopes for Afghans to come together to combat the challenges of Taliban insurgency, corruption and poverty.

President Hamid Karzai's campaign insisted he would have enough votes to avoid a runoff with his chief challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister. Abdullah countered that he was leading but suspected there would be a runoff.

Election officials called on the candidates to refrain from such claims, which could delay formation of a new government. Officials of Afghan and international monitoring teams agreed that it was too early to say who won or to know whether fraud was extensive enough to influence the outcome.

Millions of Afghans voted Thursday in the country's second-ever direct presidential election, although Taliban threats held down the turnout, especially in the militant south where Karzai was expected to run strong among his fellow Pashtuns. Insurgent attacks claimed more than two dozen lives.

Partial preliminary results won't be released by the election commission before Tuesday with final official returns due in early September. Officials count ballots at voting centers around the country and then send the figures to Kabul, where they are tabulated, verified and announced.

Nevertheless, the absence of official figures didn't dissuade supporters of the two leading candidates from issuing their own claims, which they said were based on reports from their representatives at the counting centers.

Karzai's campaign spokesman, Waheed Omar, said the president's campaign believes "we are well ahead" in the ballot count and will end up with more than 50 percent of the votes -- enough to avoid a runoff that Omar said would be "logistically, financially and also politically" problematic.

"Our prediction is that the election will not go to the second round," Omar said. "Our initial information is that we will hopefully be able to win the elections in the first round."

Abdullah challenged the claim, saying he was in the lead "despite the rigging which has taken place in some parts of the country."

He alleged that government officials interfered with ballot boxes and in some places blocked monitors from inspecting boxes or their contents. Abdullah said there "is a likelihood" that neither he nor Karzai would win more than 50 percent of the vote, setting the stage for a runoff in early October.

The U.S. Embassy and Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission dismissed both sides' claims, saying it was too early for anyone to declare victory. Commission chairman Noor Mohammed Noor said candidates had no basis for such claims and should refrain from making them.

"Anything else is speculation at this point," U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Fleur Cowan said. "We will wait to hear from the IEC and electoral complaints commission."

Clearly, however, there were some irregularities.

The Times of London newspaper reported Friday that election officials at a polling station near Kabul recorded 5,530 ballots in the first hour of voting Thursday, even though no voters were at the site when the Times' reporter arrived at 8 a.m., one hour after the voting began.

Election workers said the area was pro-Karzai and was controlled by a lawmaker who said he had already voted for the president, even though his finger wasn't marked with indelible ink, a fraud prevention measure, the Times reported.

The International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that had about 30 election observers in Afghanistan, said the vote was at a "lower standard" than the 2004 presidential ballot and 2005 parliamentary vote but that "the process so far has been credible."

Low turnout -- estimated between 40 and 50 percent nationwide -- showed that Taliban efforts to keep people home were at least partly successful, creating an election "defined by violence," said Richard S. Williamson, the IRI's delegation leader in Afghanistan and a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N.

"There is no denying the fact that a notable reason for low turnout was the lack of security, and obviously that must be addressed," IRI said. "Second, there were many credible reports that voter registration cards were sold. ... While it is difficult to determine how widespread this practice was, the magnitude of such reports of fraud warrant investigation."

Human Rights Watch cautioned against declaring the election successful, given the violence Thursday and low turnout in areas where Taliban influence is greatest.

"Early impressions of turnout suggest that violence and intimidation succeeded in keeping voters away from polling stations in a huge swathe of the country, which adds up to a successful day for the Taliban," said Rachel Reid, Afghanistan researcher for Human Rights Watch. "If international standards are dropped, there risks being a serious credibility gap -- which will only serve to increase disillusionment with the efforts to create a democracy."

Many of the irregularities and low turnout occurred in the southern and eastern areas where Karzai draws his strength and -- ironically -- where the Taliban is strongest. Abdullah, who is half Pashtun, is widely seen as the candidate of the northern Tajiks.

In Washington, a former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ronald Neumann, told the BBC that the credibility of the election will depend on whether enough Pashtuns voted that their community does not feel disenfranchised and whether Afghans perceive the fraud went beyond levels they find acceptable.

One American election observer said the delay in announcing results was fueling rumors and allegations that threaten to poison the atmosphere at a time when Afghans need to come together to deal with the problems facing their country.

Glenn Cowan, the co-founder of the U.S.-funded observer group Democracy International, said announcing results more quickly would serve as a "pressure valve release."

"Instead what you get is a buildup," Cowan said. "What's very interesting to us is that we don't know very much more about this election today than we did on Wednesday. The paucity of information is really incredible. You've had no election returns whatsoever."

As the counting continued, so did violence. A U.S. service member died Friday from wounds from a bomb in eastern Afghanistan, the NATO-led military alliance said. No other information was released. Two British troops in the south died on Thursday, officials announced.

Two policemen were killed in a suicide attack Friday against a police station in Jalalabad, officials said. Witnesses said three assailants attacked the station after sundown and two of them escaped.

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