Afghan recount ordered as Karzai nears win

A UN-BACKED commission yesterday ordered a recount of tainted ballots from the Afghan presidential vote, saying it had “convincing evidence of fraud”, even as President Hamid Karzai for the first time surpassed the threshold needed to avoid a run-off and win re-election.

Doubts are growing about the August 20 election’s credibility, a key step in US and European efforts to strengthen the Afghan government and bolster declining support for the almost eight-year war against a spreading Taliban insurgency.

The UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, an independent body with the power to investigate and nullify fraudulent votes, ordered a recount yesterday at polling stations where it had found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud”.

That means that Karzai could still have votes taken away from him. More than 720 major fraud charges have been lodged with the complaints commission.

Daoud Ali Najafi, chief electoral officer of the Afghan-run Independent Election Commission which organised the vote, said that recounting votes could take “two months or three months”, suggesting the already overextended election is far from over. Officially certified results were due by late September.

With results in from almost 92% of the country’s polling sites, Karzai has 54.1% of the votes, pushing him over the threshold that would allow him to declare victory outright and avoid a run-off with his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

As more results have come in from the south, where Karzai’s support is strong, former foreign minister Abdullah’s standing has slipped dramatically. He now has 28.3% of the vote.

But the credibility of the election is increasingly in question. The Afghan-run election commission has already quarantined ballots from more than 600 polling stations ruled to have been suspected of fraud, out of more than 26,000 stations.

The results announced yesterday do not include those ballots, Najafi said.

The UN-backed complaint commission will investigate and determine whether they can be counted or be discarded.

So far about 5.7 million votes have been tallied, including 250,000 ballots discarded either because the presidential candidate had officially withdrawn or because of problems with the ballot, such as a vote cast for two candidates.

Accounts from Western officials suggest widespread fraud. They say ballots have been submitted from hundreds of fake voting sites, especially in southern Afghanistan. The election commission has tallied dozens of voting sites where Karzai won neatly rounded blocks of ballots – 200, 300 and 500 votes – results that one Western official labelled “illogical”.

Afghanistan’s electoral law gives the Election Complaints Commission broad authorities. The commission can nullify any votes it deems fraudulent, order a recount of votes, or order a new vote entirely. The commission did not say how many polling stations would require recounts, but it noted it had so far identified some with questionable results in Ghazni, Paktika and Kandahar provinces, and that it is launching investigations in other provinces.

Stations showing 100% turnout, or with a presidential candidate receiving more than 95% of the vote, will need to be recounted, the commission said.

Stations with fewer than 100 ballots will be exempt from the process.

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