By Pamela Constable and Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 3, 2009
KABUL, Sept. 2 -- Afghanistan's volatile presidential election process moved closer to violent confrontation Wednesday, even as officials said releasing the final results from the Aug. 20 polls would be further delayed because of slow vote counting and an even slower effort to investigate hundreds of fraud complaints.
The tension was exacerbated by a suicide bombing outside a mosque in the capital of northeastern Laghman province Wednesday morning. A senior official of the national intelligence service and 23 others were killed; scores were wounded.
Election officials announced Wednesday that President Hamid Karzai, who is seeking reelection, had widened his lead over the main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, an ophthalmologist and former foreign minister. With about 3.7 million valid votes from 60 percent of polling stations tallied, they said, Karzai leads Abdullah 47.2 to 32.5 percent.
But an election commission spokesman said the date for announcing the final results was likely to slip, while the Canadian chairman of the Electoral Complaints Commission, which is examining more than 2,100 formal allegations of fraud, said it would take weeks for its investigators to finish their work and make a final judgment on the validity of the hotly contested race.
The chairman also said that until his office is able to issue a final judgment on the election, it would be legally impossible for the country to undertake a runoff -- even though that is supposed to take place within two weeks after the final results are announced if no candidate wins 50 percent plus one vote.
"We are cognizant that there is a timeline we should try to follow, but we will be as thorough as we need to be. We will move ahead as quickly and thoroughly as possible," the chairman, Grant Kippen, said at a news conference. "How this will impact on the overall results, we have no idea."
Abdullah, who has charged that the government engineered large-scale fraud at the polls and during the local vote-counting process, continued to level fresh accusations while rallying support from hundreds across the country. His supporters have said that they would not accept a flawed Karzai victory as legitimate and have vowed to defend Abdullah in the streets.
For the second day in a row, Abdullah gathered religious and tribal leaders at a hotel in the capital, Kabul. Speaker after speaker accused the government of stealing votes and called Abdullah, a former aide to the late anti-Soviet militia leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, the rightful new leader of Afghanistan.
"The Afghan people will never accept a new government by fraud and intimidation," said Sobghatullah Adapyar, a leader from northern Takhar province. "The youth of Takhar are just waiting for a signal from our leader, Dr. Abdullah. If we cannot win with our heads, we will win with our feet."
Abdullah reiterated his call for supporters to be patient and wait for the vote count and fraud investigations to be completed. He insisted that by calling supporters to the capital, he was not putting pressure on the government, but rather giving it a forum to "relieve the pressure" and thus prevent street violence.
Nevertheless, the drumbeat of complaints orchestrated by Abdullah's campaign seemed to contain a thinly veiled warning that mass violence would be unpreventable if Karzai is declared a winner on dubious grounds.
"We are speaking softly, and we will follow the law, but the process had better be serious and honest," Abdullah said after listening to a slew of emotional denunciations of alleged fraud. "The stones and the trees of this country know how much fraud there was. If it is covered up, there will be no future elections and no democracy."
Kippen's commission published a breakdown of 2,187 electoral complaints from almost every province in the country, including ballot-box stuffing, intimidation and violence. The chairman said the majority of complaints were from Kabul, Kandahar province in the south and Baghlan province in the north.
Kippen said investigators were just beginning to pursue the complaints and could not estimate when they would finish their work, suggesting that the outcome of the election will be in limbo for many weeks.
Meanwhile, the bombing in the city of Mehtar Lam, the first major attack in more than a week, further unnerved a populace that is on edge.
Abdullah Laghmani, the deputy intelligence director, was killed when a bomber approached on foot as Laghmani and other officials exited a mosque. Officials blamed the Taliban for the attack, and a spokesman for the group told news services that it was behind the blast.