U.N.-Backed Panel Finds Fraud in Afghan Vote
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
KABUL, Sept. 8 -- Afghanistan's troubled presidential election was thrown into further turmoil Tuesday when a U.N.-backed complaints panel charged widespread fraud and ordered a partial recount, just as election officials announced that President Hamid Karzai appeared to have gained enough votes to win.
The growing political crisis threatens to set off a direct confrontation between Karzai and his Western backers, who have been increasingly alarmed by mounting evidence of ballot-box stuffing and other irregularities, much of it reportedly benefiting Karzai's campaign.
In the days immediately following the Aug. 20 vote, U.S. officials were uniform in praising what President Obama called "a successful election." Obama said he looked forward "to renewing our partnership with the Afghan people as they move ahead under a new government."
But the widening fraud issue now seems likely to further prolong the slow election process, leaving the country without a clear leader for weeks or even months while tens of thousands of U.S. and NATO troops are battling the Taliban alongside Afghan forces. Obama's strategy also includes major economic development initiatives, improved delivery of services and a crackdown on corruption -- all of which will be difficult to implement without a valid Afghan government.
The unresolved political contest raises the prospect of street protests by angry opponents of Karzai or a belated runoff that could be volatile, costly and difficult to carry out once cold weather sets in. Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's top challenger in the presidential race, has charged that the entire vote was a "state-engineered fraud" and has hinted that he may not be able to control his emotional supporters if the government steals the election.
The Obama administration -- which had hoped the election would quickly produce a credible partner in the faltering battle against Taliban insurgents -- urged "all the different actors out there" to show patience. "A legitimate electoral process is vital to us and vital to any kind of partnership that we would have with the government going forward," State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said.
In a strongly worded statement issued Tuesday, the internationally led Electoral Complaints Commission said it had found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" at many polling stations, especially across the southern provinces that form Karzai's ethnic support base. The panel said it was ordering Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to conduct a recount of votes from all polling places where turnout appeared to be more than 100 percent or where a single candidate received 95 percent or more of the votes. The complaints commission is continuing separate investigations into more than 2,000 specific fraud complaints.
Just hours later, the Afghan election commission said Karzai had won 54 percent of 5.4 million valid votes tallied -- 91 percent of the total. The results indicate that he probably has enough votes to avoid a runoff with Abdullah, who has 28 percent. Afghan law requires a runoff only if no candidate wins more than 50 percent.
At a contentious news conference, election commission spokesman Daoud Ali Najafi said officials had "quarantined" about 600 suspicious ballot boxes, but he offered no response to the written recount order. He said a recount could take two to three months.
After the new results were announced, a spokesman for Karzai's campaign said that the president would wait until the fraud investigations and any recount were complete but that he expected to win. "We are obviously very happy," spokesman Waheed Omer said. "We will definitely respect the process, but we don't think there will be any [runoff]. We have enough of a lead, and we don't think the fraud was so wide as to make a difference for any candidate."
An aide to Abdullah said the announcement of the results was "by no means final or valid."
Kai Eide, the U.N. secretary general's special envoy for Afghanistan, released a statement calling on members of both the election and complaints commissions "to redouble their efforts to ensure full rigour in their work at every stage. This includes excluding from the preliminary count results from ballot boxes where there is evidence of irregularities."