By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, September 2, 2009; A10
KABUL, Sept. 1 -- As vote tallies keep dribbling out from Afghanistan's Aug. 20 presidential election, it appears increasingly likely that President Hamid Karzai will reach the 50 percent plus one vote that he needs to win reelection.
But what will happen after that is far from clear, and tension and suspicion have mounted as the vote count drags on amid widening charges of electoral fraud. Afghans are confused, jittery and bracing for street violence -- or at least a protracted period of political polarization and drift.
Legally, the internationally led Electoral Complaints Commission will have the last word on whether the fraud was extensive enough to change the results, but its investigations could go on for weeks after the official tally is announced. That leaves open the possibility of a delayed runoff between Karzai and his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, or even nullification of the election.
"I think it's clear Karzai has won, but that doesn't resolve the crisis we are facing," said Haroun Mir, director of Afghanistan's Center for Research and Policy Studies. "The ultimate goal here is to stabilize the country and defeat the Taliban. If we don't come out of this election with a legitimate and strong government, it could have a major impact on both Afghanistan and on the entire NATO effort here."
Karzai's lead over Abdullah, his former foreign minister, has widened slowly but steadily. On Monday, with nearly half the votes counted, the Afghan election commission said Karzai was ahead by about 46 to 32 percent. But Abdullah has alleged "massive state engineering" of the vote and vowed he will not accept a flawed Karzai victory as legitimate.
Both major candidates have publicly urged their supporters to await the official results, which are expected in about two weeks. But behind the scenes, reports have circulated of threats of violence by the opposition and high-pressure tactics by government officials, alternating with rumors of power-sharing deals between Karzai and Abdullah.
The atmosphere of fraud and strong-arm behavior surrounding the election has also heightened tensions between Kabul and Washington, just as U.S. officials are scrambling to justify their military commitments here and find new strategies to salvage the faltering and expensive war against Taliban insurgents.
American officials have expressed rare public dismay at Karzai's electoral courtship of controversial former warlords. Karzai's aides, in turn, portrayed his recent meeting with the U.S. special envoy to the region, Richard C. Holbrooke, as an imperious political lecture from Washington. If Karzai remains in power, it is unclear whether he will seek to mend fences with Washington or continue his populist demonizing of the West.
Despite the domestic and international concerns about an illegitimate election, the complaints commission is also under pressure to somehow address the fraud problem without forcing a second election. Many Afghans and outside observers say a runoff would be costly, stressful and just as vulnerable to fraud and insurgent attacks as the Aug. 20 poll. A flawed single election that lets the country get back to normal, they argue, would be the lesser evil.
"Would a second round clear the air and have more legitimacy? That's a question mark," said one U.N. official here, speaking on the condition of anonymity. He said it might be wiser for Afghans to forge a "consensus of governance, if not government," rather than force another electoral exercise in the middle of a guerrilla war.
But neither Karzai nor Abdullah appears inclined to reach out. Both represent ethnic groups that are bitter longtime rivals with large emotional and economic stakes in the outcome. Both have formed alliances with powerful figures who have demanded significant concessions in exchange for their support.
Abdullah has said several times that he will "defend the Afghan people's vote," while some of his supporters, including experienced militia fighters, have vowed to take to the streets if he is declared the loser. Karzai, in turn, has enlisted the electoral backing of several former militia leaders accused of rights abuses and drug trafficking.
Grant Kippen, the low-key Canadian elections expert who heads the Electoral Complaints Commission, has attempted to stay above the partisan fray as his staff sorts through more than 2,000 fraud complaints. He has said that several hundred are serious enough to potentially affect the results and that he will take as much time as is necessary to investigate them properly, regardless of the rising public tension and pressure for a final outcome.
But a certain amount of discretion and subjectivity is involved in both the vote tally and the fraud detection process, one foreign elections expert said. In addition to the formal complaints investigated by Kippen's panel, he said, polling results that "smell funny," such as a box full of genuine-looking ballots that favor one candidate by 600 votes to 1, can either be "set aside" by the election commission or added to the count.
Kippen's findings could be political dynamite if they show that, as many observers suspect, much of the fraud was committed on Karzai's behalf in the southern region that is his ethnic Pashtun heartland, and where insurgent violence kept hundreds of thousands of people from voting.
Such a finding would raise the prospect of a president being reelected with a slim and questionable mandate from his own supporters and facing the hostility of an opposition convinced that he stole the election.
"There are warlords on both sides of this divide, and we cannot afford to be drawn into another ethnic conflict over this election," said Mir, the policy analyst. "This needs to be a time of reaching out to the opposition, not exacting vengeance. Otherwise, the only beneficiaries will be the Taliban."