/ 25 August 2009

Karzai, chief rival neck and neck in Afghan vote

Incumbent Hamid Karzai is running neck and neck with his main rival in the fraud-tainted race for the Afghan presidency, according to the first partial results unveiled on Tuesday.

Just before the announcement of results from 10% of the votes cast, Karzai’s chief rival Abdullah Abdullah appealed for calm in a nation riven by Taliban bloodshed and simmering ethnic tension.

Out of the half-million ballots initially counted, the Western-backed Karzai had 212 927 votes or 40,6%, and former foreign minister Abdullah was on 202 889 votes or 38,6%, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said.

Karzai’s camp earlier insisted that it had triumphed in Thursday’s election, a pivotal moment in Afghanistan’s troubled emergence from years of civil war and Taliban rule as Western troops battle to defeat a raging insurgency.

But Daud Najafi, the IEC’s chief electoral officer, stressed that it was too early to tell with final results not due until September 3.

”I repeat again, this is partial results of about 10% of the overall vote,” he told a news conference.

”I repeat again, this will definitely change tomorrow, the day after tomorrow. This is only partial results,” the official said.

The results of Afghanistan’s elections could deepen the divides that plague the shaky nation. Abdullah has his powerbase in the north, among ethnic Tajiks, while Karzai is influential in the Pashtun-dominated south.

Abdullah, the urbane former minister whose energetic campaign stymied Karzai’s hopes of an easy re-election, again accused the president of rampant vote fraud but tamped down fears of violence linked to a disputed outcome.

”I’m urging the Afghans to be calm and to be patient and to show responsibility,” he told reporters at his home in Kabul.

”I think that the people don’t want to resort to violence,” he said.

”All our efforts were in order to bring stability to this country, and to bring greater governance and greater rule of law.”

The IEC is releasing results piecemeal and officials have urged people not to extrapolate and try to form a clear picture overall. Both Karzai and Abdullah have claimed to be ahead ever since Thursday’s vote.

”We are the winner, definitely,” Din Mohammad, Karzai’s chief electoral campaign official, told Agence France-Presse earlier on Tuesday, ruling out speculation that the president would be forced into a run-off.

The president, whose tenure since the 2001 United States-led ouster of the Taliban regime has been marred by war and corruption, won the first presidential election in 2004 with 55,4% of the vote.

A final result from this election cannot be certified until officials complete investigations into hundreds of alleged abuses.

Abdullah said ”millions” of extra voting cards had been issued because of failures within the election commission, which stands accused of pro-Karzai bias.

”We will pursue all legal means … in order to prevent a big fraud deciding the result of our elections,” Abdullah added.

Analysts say the counter-claims show that the main contenders are embarked on a game of brinkmanship before final results hand Karzai or Abdullah an outright win, or set the stage for a run-off.

”The candidates do seem to be playing to the international press, because there is such a hunger for headlines,” a senior UN official told AFP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue.

”It’s all part of the game and no matter what they come out and say, they only have part of the picture themselves.

”Abdullah does appear to be positioning himself for a loss. And that’s part of the process too as it happens anywhere — accept defeat, be gracious in congratulating the winner, become an honourable opposition,” the official said.

The United Nations has thrown its full weight behind the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) as it probes complaints, and appealed for patience.

”It is not my job to define how significant and how widespread those irregularities have been. That is up to the process that now follows and where the ECC will play a critical role,” UN special envoy Kai Eide said. — AFP