By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 25, 2009
KABUL, Aug. 24 -- An Afghan cabinet minister said Monday that President Hamid Karzai won Thursday's presidential election with an overwhelming majority of 68 percent. If confirmed, such a result would eliminate the need for a runoff election in October between Karzai and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, but could raise questions about the vote's credibility.
Finance Minister Omar Zakhilwol, citing partial and unpublished vote tallies, told journalists at a dinner that support for Karzai was high enough across the nation to cancel out the problem of low voter turnout in the south. Insurgent violence there prevented many people from voting, and there have been widespread accusations of fraud.
Pre-election polls suggested that Karzai, whose base is in the south, would win a high plurality of the vote but not reach the 50.1 percent required to win in the first round. They showed that Abdullah, a former foreign minister, would probably win at least 25 percent. Abdullah charged Sunday that Karzai's supporters and government officials had conducted "heavy rigging" of the elections, especially by stuffing ballot boxes in polling stations across the south, where few voted.
No official results have been announced, but the Independent Elections Commission is due to release preliminary numbers on Tuesday. In the past week, election monitoring groups said they have received hundreds of complaints of fraud, including some serious enough to potentially affect the outcome.
Zakhilwol said his assertion came from figures made available to him as a government official, and that they were based on a tally of about 4.5 million votes out of about 5 million cast. He said Karzai had received about 3 million and that Abdullah had about 1 million. At least 15 million voters were registered.
If official results do show that Karzai won with such a high share of the vote -- and with such a low turnout -- it could set the stage for a period of political turmoil and potential violence by angry opponents who think they were cheated. It could also lead to a government formed under a cloud of doubt, with a limited mandate heavily skewed along ethnic and regional lines.
The United States and NATO are at a critical turning point in their strategy for fighting the Taliban. They are counting on a legitimate election and a strengthened government in Kabul to bolster their arguments that the country needs continued military and economic support.
Military officials said Monday that a U.S. soldier and two Estonian troops were killed in attacks in southern Afghanistan in the past two days. They said the American, the 37th to die in Afghanistan this month, was killed in a Taliban attack in an undisclosed location. The Estonians were killed by a roadside bomb in Helmand province.
Zakhilwol seemed to suggest that the south's results did not matter. He told journalists that one could "leave out" major southern provinces such as Kandahar -- Karzai's home region and the heart of his ethnic Pashtun group -- and he would still have a meaningful victory.
But many election experts here have said they doubt Karzai could have won more than half the votes after several years of steadily declining popularity and increasing insurgent violence. In 2004, when Karzai enjoyed much stronger public support, he won his first presidential election with 55 per cent of the vote.
A spokesman for Abdullah, Fazel Sangcharaki, said late Monday that Zakhilwol's assertion was "not true" and that people should wait until the official results are announced.
Election officials recently asked candidates not to claim victory before official tallies were ready, but aides to both Abdullah and Karzai have asserted that they received overwhelming support.
Officials overseeing the investigation of election complaints said Monday they are confident they can catch as much as 90 percent of the fraud, using computer analyses and other modern techniques.
In interviews this week, elected officials and other sources from several southern provinces described numerous cases in which only a few voters turned out at polling places because of threats and violence from Taliban insurgents; full ballot boxes containing hundreds of votes were later delivered to Kabul for counting. They said they were certain local elections officials or other pro-Karzai groups had stuffed the boxes.
"In Baraki Barak District, only about 500 people were able to vote out of 43,000 registered voters. In Harwar District, nobody at all was able to vote out of 15,000 registered voters. Yet the ballot boxes from these places came to Kabul full," alleged Faizullah Mojadedi, a legislator from Taliban-plagued Logar province. "The fact that people were afraid to vote became a big excuse for those who wanted to take advantage of it."
In Wardak province, where insurgents also threatened voters with warning notices and fired rockets at polling places, provincial officials described an almost identical situation. Roshanak Wardak, a medical doctor and member of parliament from Wardak, said that because of the Taliban threats, only polling sites in the provincial capital received more than a few voters.
"We really had no election at all. Even I was not able to cast my ballot," said Wardak, who filed several complaints. "I don't think more than a few hundred people in the whole province voted, but 52 full boxes were sent to Kabul."
Wardak said one clumsily stuffed box contained a full tablet of ballots that had not even been torn off. "If this election stands, then no one in Afghanistan will ever trust an election again," she said.