Afghan President Hamid Karzai defended the country’s election against claims of widespread fraud, but stopped short of declaring victory despite a substantial lead in the preliminary count today.
Mr Karzai’s top challenger in the contest, however, warned that the Taliban would be “the champions” if the government accepts a fraudulent vote, because that would prove their claims that democracy cannot work in Afghanistan.
The final, but uncertified, vote count gives Mr Karzai more than 54% of the ballots, well ahead of former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. But ongoing recounts and fraud investigations could drive Mr Karzai’s total below 50%, forcing him into a runoff.
Allegations of large-scale ballot rigging, phantom polling stations and turnouts in some areas above 100% threaten to undermine public support for Afghanistan’s central government at home.
The charges have fed growing disillusionment with the Afghan government abroad and questions about what can be accomplished in the country, as members of the Nato coalition consider their commitment to a widening war.
However Mr Karzai said: “I believe firmly in the integrity of the election, in the integrity of the Afghan people and in the integrity of the government in that process.”
He did concede that “there were some government officials who were partial toward me,” marking the first public acknowledgement of fraud by him or his supporters.
But he also accused other officials of manipulating results to favour Mr Abdullah.
The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, the final judge of the tally, has ordered a recount of votes at about 10% of polling stations countrywide because of suspect results. The complaints panel has also thrown out results from 83 polling stations because of “clear and compelling” evidence of fraud.
Mr Karzai, however, said he had so far only seen concrete evidence that 1,200 ballots were faked.
Meanwhile he urged the UN-backed panel to thoroughly investigate allegations of cheating and said he would wait for those decisions.
While the incumbent stopped short of declaring victory, he described the steps he will take “if I am declared president.”
Mr Abdullah said the preliminary count was the product of “state-engineered fraud.” He called on Afghan and foreign officials to oppose the “corruption and malpractice” that he said marked the balloting.
“This is the wrong way forward for the future of this country,” he said. “This will only help the insurgents. ... The champions out of this will be the Taliban.”
Pressed on whether he would cut some kind of deal with Mr Karzai and avoid weeks or months of legal challenges that could weaken the government, already in a life-and-death struggle with the militants, Abdullah ruled out joining any coalition government but said if the investigations of the election drag on for months, some kind of “interim solution” would be needed.
Mr Karzai, too, has ruled out a coalition but said he would welcome Mr Abdullah into his administration
The preliminary results show Mr Abdullah with 27.7%, against Mr Karzai’s 54.6%. While Mr Karzai’s lead seems large, observers have said there are enough questionable votes that he could still be forced into a runoff.
All the areas where ballots were recently thrown out were in Pashtun communities in the south and east, which make up Mr Karzai’s electoral base. Mr Karzai is an ethnic Pashtun. The investigations and recounts must be finished before results are finalised, a process likely to take weeks.
Many are concerned that the delays created by investigations and recounts could push any runoff into the spring, and that such a long delay could create a power vacuum. Because snows that start in November make many roads impassable for months in the mountainous country, it would be impossible to stage a runoff election in winter.
The allegations of vote fraud, added to accusations of corruption in Mr Karzai’s government, could deepen doubts among the 42 countries that contribute to the Nato-led force about what they have accomplished since the September 11, 2001 attacks, amid rising foreign troop casualties.