Partial Tally in Afghan Vote Shows Karzai With Slight Lead Over Abdullah

Afghanistan's voters went to the polls on Aug. 20, 2009, for the nation's second presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Two months later, Afghanistan's election commission ordered a runoff election for Nov. 7 after a fraud investigation invalidated nearly a million of President Hamid Karzai's votes.
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, August 26, 2009

KABUL, Aug. 25 -- A partial tally of votes in last week's Afghan presidential election shows incumbent Hamid Karzai with a slight edge over his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, according to results released Tuesday.

With 10 percent of the ballots counted, officials said, Karzai won 40 percent of Thursday's vote; Abdullah won 38 percent.

The tensely awaited results, released shortly after Abdullah produced what he said was evidence of election fraud by Karzai's team, contrasted sharply with assertions by the president's aides that he had won at least 68 percent of the vote. The official numbers, though far from conclusive, suggest that Karzai may not win outright and that the two men will face a runoff in October. A candidate needs 50.1 percent to avoid a runoff.

The official results announced Tuesday are roughly in line with figures from preelection opinion polls, a sign that the vote-counting process might be working better than expected.

Nevertheless, Abdullah's newly detailed allegations of what he called systematic, government-orchestrated fraud have raised fresh questions about the credibility of an election that is pivotal not only for Afghanistan's fragile democracy, but also for U.S. and NATO officials struggling to decide how much deeper and longer to pursue their military commitment here.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister who on Sunday had accused the Karzai administration of widespread vote-rigging, showed journalists tablets of multiple paper ballots marked with identical checks for Karzai. He also presented several video clips of polling stations after election day that showed people seated on the floor, marking one ballot after another and cracking jokes about it.

"There is now no doubt that state-engineered fraud has been underway," said Abdullah, adding that he had received specific complaints of government interference and rigging from people in several provinces. "It was engineered to steal the vote by the incumbent, by Mr. Karzai. That we will not allow, and we will use all legal means to prevent it."

Aides to Karzai have denied the allegations and accused Abdullah of engaging in political propaganda. On Tuesday, they continued to say that their candidate was comfortably ahead in the race and that they expected him to win in the first round.

The announcement of results by the Independent Election Commission seemed to suggest that massive fraud in favor of the government had not taken place, but rather that the race between Karzai and Abdullah was even closer than predicted. With 524,444 valid votes counted, the panel reported that 212,927 had gone to Karzai and 202,889 had gone to Abdullah. Two other candidates, Ramazan Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani, received 53,132 and 15,142 votes, respectively.

However, the partial results were heavily skewed in favor of northern Afghanistan, Abdullah's ethnic and political base, and against Karzai's ethnic homeland in the south, where hundreds of thousands of voters were prevented from casting ballots because of threats and attacks by the Taliban.

Although 56 percent of the votes had been counted in Parwan and 49 percent in Panjshir, both Abdullah strongholds north of Kabul, zero to 2 percent of the votes had been counted in southern provinces such as Helmand and Kandahar, where Karzai is likely to do much better.

The early numbers also suggested that voter turnout was extremely low, perhaps 30 percent of 15 million registered nationwide and much lower in the south.

Election commission members said 85 percent of all ballots had reached the national counting center in Kabul and were undergoing a seven-step review to determine that each was genuine. They said 21,000 votes were declared invalid for various irregularities or errors, and 10,000 were discounted because they supported candidates who had withdrawn from the race.

"We are trying to be very, very accurate," commission spokesman Daoud Ali Najafi told reporters. "The announcement of the election results is the ultimate right of the election commission. I remind all candidates, their representatives and others to avoid announcing results based on their own calculations."

The Afghan election panel said it expected to continue releasing vote tallies every day, with final results to be announced early next month. But it may take weeks for officials to investigate and rule on hundreds of complaints of fraud.

Abdullah has alleged that the national election commission, headed by a Karzai appointee, is biased and corrupt. He gave several examples Tuesday of local election officials and other government aides purportedly instructing people to vote for Karzai or orchestrating the stuffing of ballot boxes after the polls closed.

But international observers here said they were pleased by the election commission's careful and professional performance. One U.N. official said it "clearly reflects the laws and policies put in place to make this a credible election. They seem to be doing all they can to make the process as good as it can be."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company