Challenger demands investigation into Afghan vote

The chief challenger to President Hamid Karzai today called for a full investigation into hundreds of reports of fraud in Afghanistan’s presidential contest.

A UN-backed commission yesterday threw out thousands of ballots from dozens of polling stations and ordered recounts in parts of three Afghan provinces.

The UN-backed Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission, which is investigating fraud allegations, has the power to order a complete rerun of the election, with all challengers participating.

Mr Karzai’s lead in the presidential vote appears to be shrinking as the UN-backed commission tosses out tainted ballots, making a runoff with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah more likely.

Abdul Star Murad, Abdullah’s campaign chief in Kabul, called for a full investigation into all allegations of cheating.

“It is very important that the nation continues to trust the political process,” he said. “The nation has the right to know who got the most votes in every area.”

If that doesn’t happen, he said, “the nation and the people will lose their trust in the system.”

Afghanistan’s presidential contest was marred by allegations of ballot stuffing, phantom polling stations and turnout at some polls that exceeded 100% of registered voters.

A spokesman for the Karzai-appointed Independent Elections Commission, which is counting the ballots, told reporters earlier this week that a complete tally of returns would be released tomorrow.

But election officials said today that announcement could be delayed.

So far the elections commission has counted ballots from 92% of the country’s polling stations. Those returns show Karzai with 54% of the vote, more than the 50% plus one he needs to avoid a run-off with Abdullah, who has 28%.

But most of the ballots thrown out so far were cast in southern and eastern Afghanistan, Karzai’s political base.

If enough Karzai votes are ruled invalid, that could push the incumbent’s total below 50% and force a run-off.

Decisions by this fraud commission are final under Afghanistan’s electoral law. The group – comprised of one American, one Canadian, one Dutch, and two Afghans - is releasing decisions from each province as its investigations finish.

Yesterday, the commission threw out ballots from 51 polling stations in Kandahar province, 27 in Ghazni and five in Paktika.

Although it did not say how many ballots were invalidated, thousands are likely involved.

It ordered election officials to recount votes in hundreds of other voting centres across the three districts in the presence of observers, commission members and representatives of the candidates.

All three provinces are dominated by voters who, like Karzai, are ethnic Pashtuns and form the president’s political base.

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