Karzai 'wins' 2-1, but fraud charges block victory claim

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced Wednesday that President Hamid Karzai won 54.6 percent of the vote in the national elections Aug. 20, but European Union election observers said that 1.5 million votes should be investigated under fraud standards the commission approved this summer.

The observers said Karzai received about 1.1 million of those questionable votes, runner-up Abdullah Abdullah got 300,000 and the rest of the suspect votes went to other presidential candidates.

Analysts said that the pool of questionable votes was sufficient to push Karzai back down below 50 percent and force a runoff with Abdullah, who won just under 28 percent of the vote, according to the commission.

A Karzai campaign adviser, Moen Marastyal, said Wednesday that he expected the president would still be above 50 percent when the fraud investigations were through. He said that Karzai would wait to declare victory until the investigation was through and the final vote was certified.

Afghanistan's struggle to pick a new president comes as President Barack Obama reviews U.S. policy and considers whether to send thousands more troops there. The U.S. Embassy in Kabul said in a statement Wednesday: "We hope that these investigations can be carried out rigorously, in a timely fashion and with maximum cooperation between the two independent electoral bodies."

As McClatchy reported Saturday, the Afghan commission voted Sept. 7 to relax the fraud standards it had approved earlier after an analysis found that Karzai couldn't claim enough votes to push him over 50 percent, according to a commission official.

After the commission eased the standards, hundreds of thousands of questionable votes were added to the count.

"They were supposed to be red-flagged, and were not," said Maria Espinosa, an election analyst with the European Union observers. "We can't speculate on how many are bad, but they should be investigated."

The election commission leaders have bristled at such statements. On Wednesday, the commission's chief electoral officer, Daoud Ali Najafi, denounced the EU observers as overstepping their authority.

"They have not the right to interfere in the commission," Najafi said. "Where do they get these figures?"

This was one of the first times that the behind-the-scenes tensions over the scope of the investigation have burst into the open. Karzai supporters have pressured the election commission to limit the anti-fraud effort, while runner-up Abdullah and some Western officials have sought to bolster it.

Western governments also have influence through the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which has the authority to annul votes and order recounts. The complaints commission already has thrown out thousands of ballots and ordered a recount of nearly 10 percent of the nation's polling sites. It still has a huge task ahead, however, as investigators fan out to examine more than 600 high-priority complaints of ballot-box stuffing and other misconduct.

Under Afghan electoral law, the complaints commission must rule on all the fraud allegations before the election commission can certify the final vote.

The debate has even split the U.N. mission here, with American U.N. deputy chief Peter Galbraith pushing for a more wide-ranging investigation than his boss, U.N. special envoy Kai Eide, favors. Within the past week, Galbraith abruptly left for New York. "He's temporarily away from Kabul, and will be back before the end of the month," said Adrian Edwards, a U.N. spokesman here.

Since the election, the ballot count has dragged on as fraud allegations soared. There's also been growing concern — and intense debate — within Afghan political circles and the Western diplomatic community about how to proceed amid concern that a prolonged investigation would weaken the government. The timing of any runoff also could be a problem, because Afghanistan's harsh winter weather might force the election to be postponed until next spring.

(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times.)


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