/ 19 October 2009

Afghan poll picture darkens with run-off looming

The chances of a second round run-off being needed to end Afghanistan’s political crisis increased on Monday when a United Nations-backed fraud watchdog submitted a long-delayed ruling into voting irregularities in August’s poll.

The August 20 election, tainted by allegations of widespread fraud, has fanned tension between President Hamid Karzai and Western governments whose troops are fighting a resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan in a war that has entered its ninth year.

The protracted process has complicated United States President Barack Obama’s deliberations on whether to send thousands more troops that his top military commander in Afghanistan says he needs.

If the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) probe determines there are enough fraudulent votes to tip Karzai’s vote below 50% he will face a second round against his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

It was not immediately clear whether the findings, presented as a dense report backed with dozens of pages of technical details, meant there should be a second round.

But it did mean provisional results which gave Karzai 54,6% of the vote to Abdullah’s 28% would almost certainly have to be changed.

The ECC said in a statement accompanying the findings that the Afghan election authorities were now ”responsible for adjusting candidates’ vote totals in accordance with the ECC’s decision before it may certify the final result”.

Widespread fraud?
Even if a second round is required, analysts and Western observers have long said Karzai, a Pashtun from the country’s traditional rulers and its largest ethnic group, would likely still emerge as the victor.

Abdullah has said he will urge his backers to accept the result if fraud complaints are properly investigated, but fears of ethnic violence linger among Afghanistan’s fractured tribal groups if it is perceived Karzai’s campaign was responsible for widespread fraud.

With violence at its worst levels across Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001, analysts say continuing political uncertainty and infighting will also only embolden the militants more.

Among other findings, the ECC report listed numerous polling stations as having 100% of ballots collected being suspicious, with uniform markings or with no ballot papers folded at all and marked with a felt marker.

In the first public criticism of the investigation coming from Karzai’s side, a senior member of his election team said the ECC procedure was wrong.

”The campaign office of Hamid Karzai criticises the formula [used by ECC] for dealing with suspect votes,” Mohammad Moin Marastyal, a senior member of Karzai’s team and a member of parliament, said of the investigation.

”This [procedure] is not correct and this has brought down Karzai’s tally … Effort has been made to lower Karzai’s vote to below 50%. Now we are in a deadlock.”

Karzai has long warned against a second round and has hinted the ECC’s fraud investigation could have involved foreign meddling.

Officials and diplomats had earlier said the ECC’s findings were expected to cut Karzai’s tally to below 50%. — Reuters