Result in Afghan's fraud-ridden elections may take weeks

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 2, 2009 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's election results are headed into weeks of limbo as a government commission investigates more than 600 complaints of ballot stuffing, intimidation and other allegations.

Although President Hamid Karzai is reported to be ahead, election officials said Wednesday that no winner can be certified in the Aug. 20 election until the review is completed, and no one knows how long that might take.

The election uncertainty comes at a perilous time for Karzai's government as insurgents widen their influence across the country. A suicide bomber Wednesday killed the deputy director of Afghanistan's main intelligence agency and 22 others in the eastern Laghman province, and the Taliban later took credit for the attack.

It also comes at an important juncture for the nearly 8-year-long U.S. war here. President Barack Obama is expected to receive a Pentagon request later this month to increase U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan, amid polls that show declining public support for the war, and concern that Afghans would consider a larger force an occupying army.

Two weeks after the vote, ballots have been tallied from about 60 percent of the polling places, with Karzai reported to be leading with 47 percent, and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, trailing with 32.6 percent. According to that tally, Karzai is still shy of the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a run-off election.

An initial tally of all the votes is expected by Monday. However, Grant Kippen, the chairman of the Election Complaints Commission, said the winner can't be certified — or a date set should there be a need for a run-off election — until the investigations are completed.

"We have no idea how that may impact overall results," Kippen said.

The five-member commission includes three international members appointed by the United Nations.

If Karzai ends up with more than 50 percent of the vote in the initial tally, he could opt to declare himself the winner regardless of ongoing investigations.

Abdullah has said, however, that he won't bow out of the race while the investigations continue, promising supporters at a rally this week that he'd "stand with my people to the end."

It's unclear how many votes could be affected by the commission's inquiry into the 652 priority complaints culled from a broader group of more than 2,000. A staff of some 200 investigators is now fanning across the country to check out the fraud claims. Officials declined to predict when the work might be done.

Kippen didn't release any details, but he said that the most complaints came from Baghlan in northeastern Afghanistan, Kabul and the southern province of Kandahar.

"These complaints must be adjudicated before the (Independent Election Commission) can certify the final results," he said.

One problem with rerunning the elections is that it would give insurgents another opportunity to show their strength around the country.

In the latest attack, a bomber wearing an explosive vest packed with ball bearings detonated himself outside a mosque in Mehterlam, in Laghman Province, about 60 miles east of Kabul. Abdullah Laghmani, the deputy director of the National Directorate of Security, the country's CIA-mentored intelligence service and several top officials were among the 23 killed, and at least 35 other people were injured in the attack, according to Sayed Ahmad Safi, a spokesman for the provincial governor.

A Taliban spokesman, in telephone calls to Afghan and international media, took responsibility for the strike, which took place in the middle of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, but there was no way to confirm the claim. Whoever is responsible, the attack suggests a major breach of security and the possibility that the insurgents have penetrated the agency or the provincial security forces.

Laghmani, the former NDS chief of southern war-torn Kandahar Province, fought against the Taliban as a member of the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance. He was a Pashtun, the ethnic group from which the Taliban draw most of their fighters.

"The Taliban certainly seem to take note of the opportunity that this uncertainty creates, and they won't make the mistake of not exploiting it," said Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst based in Kabul for the International Crisis Group.

Some of the most sweeping fraud accusations have been made in the Pashtun south, a Taliban stronghold that's also been a traditional base of Karzai, who's Pashtun. Those allegations got a public airing on Monday as hundreds of Abdullah supporters gathered in a wedding hall in downtown Kabul to hear politicians and tribal leaders from the south.

Hamidullah Tokhi, a parliamentarian from Zabul Province, alleged that a district leader arranged for 20,000 ballots to be cast for Karzai. "This government is very weak. They don't have the support of 10 percent of the people, Tokhi said.

Anger was also directed at the U.S. for its role in supporting the troubled election.

Malalai Ishaqzai, a parliamentarian from Kandahar, appealed directly to Obama to ensure that their voting rights are respected. She accused Ahmad Wali Karzai, the president's brother and provincial council chief in Kandahar, of helping to rig the election in south.

Karzai campaign aides have repeatedly denied mounting an organized effort to alter votes and accused Abdullah supporters of their own effort to skew votes.

Abdullah, who early on served in the Karzai government, said Monday that he wasn't about to join a new Karzai administration or to help forge a coalition government.

"I will make no deal over your rights for any position, and I will stay with you until the end," he said.

(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this article.)

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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