First Full Tally in Afghanistan Shows Karzai Has 54 Percent of Vote

An Afghan fruit seller sits under an election poster of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he waits for customers in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Sept 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
An Afghan fruit seller sits under an election poster of Afghan President Hamid Karzai as he waits for customers in Jalalabad, Afghanistan on Tuesday, Sept 15, 2009. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul) (Rahmat Gul - AP)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, September 17, 2009

KABUL, Sept. 16 -- Afghanistan's election commission, in its first full tally of ballots cast in last month's presidential race, announced Wednesday that incumbent Hamid Karzai had won 54.6 percent of the vote, giving him a margin large enough to win reelection and avoid a runoff against his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

But with reports of fraud at several thousand polling stations, the final result will depend on an extensive investigation being conducted by the U.N.-sponsored Electoral Complaints Commission, as well as a recount of about 10 percent of the ballots that it has ordered Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission to carry out.

If the U.N. complaints commission finds a large number of votes invalid, it could reduce Karzai's total enough to force a runoff against Abdullah, his former foreign minister. A clear winner requires 50 percent of total ballots cast, plus one vote. The Afghan election commission said Abdullah had won 27.7 percent of the about 5.6 million votes cast.

A spokesman for Karzai's campaign, Waheed Omer, said that "unless a miracle happens" for Abdullah, "we are the winner." But an aide to Abdullah said that as many as 1.5 million votes were "highly questionable." Abdullah has accused Karzai's camp of engineering large-scale fraud.

Even before the Afghan commission announced the full preliminary results, officials at the U.S. Embassy, the European Union and the U.N. mission in Afghanistan issued statements Wednesday calling on officials to carry out a comprehensive investigation and a partial vote recount, and urging all candidates to remain patient until the process is finished.

Western officials here are concerned that a new government tainted by allegations of election fraud will have little credibility to fight corruption, improve governance, inspire confidence abroad or work effectively with U.S. and NATO forces to fight the fast-spreading Taliban insurgency.

On Wednesday, amid a wave of bombings and other attacks by insurgent forces, three U.S. service members were killed when their vehicle struck a roadside bomb in southern Afghanistan, officials said. The deaths brought to 22 the number of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan this month.

Although foreign officials are distressed by reports of vote fraud, they also worry that a drawn-out and contentious probe and recount will lead to a troubled runoff election that would be held after months of political drift and possible civil unrest.

"We hope that these investigations can be carried out rigorously, in a timely fashion, and with maximum cooperation between the two independent electoral bodies," the U.S. Embassy statement said, adding that it expected audits and recounts at more than 600 polling stations that have been "quarantined" as possibly fraudulent.

The United Nations said the Afghan election commission "must continue to coordinate closely with the complaints commission to ensure that all legitimate ballots are counted and fraudulent ones are excluded so that the final outcome reflects the will of the people faithfully."

The Afghan and U.N.-backed electoral panels have been at loggerheads for several weeks over how many votes should be rejected in the count, and many observers here say the Afghan panel, whose members were appointed by Karzai, has been making decisions beneficial to the president.

The issue of how seriously to take the fraud charges, and whether to force a runoff, has also caused a rare public rift within the international community here. The senior American official at the U.N. mission, Peter W. Galbraith, left the country abruptly Sunday in a dispute with the mission director, Norwegian Kai Eide.

Galbraith had pushed for an exhaustive probe. Sources who are familiar with the dispute but are not authorized to speak on the record said Eide argued that the international community should not press too hard because it could undermine national stability.

Galbraith had been convinced that Karzai could not win without fraud and had tried to reduce the number of polling stations in some areas in the south, the incumbent's ethnic stronghold, said one diplomatic source. Eide and others, the source said, were convinced that Karzai would win in any case and that any irregularities could be smoothed over, as they were in the 2004 presidential election that Karzai won by a safe margin.

In this year's election, however, evidence of fraud has been too publicized to ignore. The U.N. complaints commission has said votes from more than 2,500 polling stations need to be recounted, and it has rejected all ballots from 83 polling stations in three provinces where Karzai has strong support.

Separately, an election monitoring team from the European Union said Wednesday that about 1.5 million ballots might be fraudulent. In most cases, this was because the number of votes cast exceeded the number of ballots delivered to the polling station or because a disproportionate number of the votes cast at the station were for one candidate.

Some Western officials have privately advocated a deal between Karzai and Abdullah as the best way to resolve the impasse, and Karzai has said he is open to working with his rival. But there is deep bitterness between the two camps, and chances for a deal appear uncertain at best.

Staff writers Karen DeYoung in Washington and Colum Lynch at the United Nations contributed to this report.

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