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Karzai camp expresses doubts over Afghan election fraud finding

The Obama administration urges Afghanistan's president to accept a U.N.-backed panel's decision to toss out hundreds of thousands of ballots, apparently making a runoff vote necessary.

October 20, 2009|Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — A United Nations-backed panel Monday tossed out hundreds of thousands of ballots cast in August for Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and independent election observers said the new figures dictated that a runoff election should take place.

Karzai and election officials loyal to him appeared to balk initially at accepting the fraud investigators' finding that he did not attain the majority needed for a first-round win in the landmark presidential election. That would trigger a runoff with his main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

While Abdullah renewed demands for a runoff vote, Western diplomats and the Obama administration urgently sought to persuade Karzai to acknowledge the validity of the panel's finding. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was encouraged by the direction events were taking.

Failure to accept the election panel's finding, diplomats and administration officials warned Karzai, could risk triggering a constitutional crisis and raise the specter of street violence and ethnic strife.

Millions of Afghans risked their safety to go to the polls on election day, defying Taliban threats and a drumbeat of attacks in the weeks leading up to the vote.

The election has already been a huge disappointment to the West, which had hoped the balloting would showcase Afghanistan's nascent democracy and lend credibility to not only the central government but the entire war effort, now in its ninth year.

Two months of intense wrangling over the election results have delayed key decisions in Washington and among NATO allies on troop levels and battlefield strategy in Afghanistan. The White House has openly questioned whether the election would lead to a legitimate partnership with the next Afghan administration.

The White House has been leaning on Karzai, stressing over the weekend that it would delay a decision on additional U.S. troops until the election issue was sorted out. Army Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, the U.S. and allied commander, has asked for up to 40,000 additional American troops, but White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said in interviews that it would be "reckless" to send more personnel without knowing how the Afghan government was taking shape.

"It is now up to the Afghans to make this legitimate," said Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who is visiting the region, flew to Kabul from Pakistan and met with Karzai on Monday evening, shortly after the Electoral Complaints Commission invalidated hundreds of thousands of ballots cast for the president in the Aug. 20 vote.

Independent election observers and officials familiar with the recount procedure calculated that after subtracting those votes, Karzai's share fell to 48.3% -- short of the 50%-plus he needs in order to win outright. A preliminary vote tally had given him 54.6%. To become final, the audit panel's finding must be certified by an Afghan body known as the Independent Election Commission, which is ostensibly impartial but is considered largely loyal to Karzai.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul issued a carefully worded statement calling on Afghan election officials to "implement those orders with all due speed." Clinton urged the Afghan government to "follow the constitution and the legal process," which require a runoff when no candidate receives more than 50% of the vote.

"I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution, in line with the constitutional order, in the next several days," Clinton told reporters in Washington.

She did not want to preempt an announcement by Karzai, she said, "but I am encouraged at the direction that the situation is moving."

Abdullah's campaign hailed the new figures, which revised his share upward from about 28% to 31%, and praised the panel's work as "accurate and thorough."

"This would mean a runoff, which we are happy about," said a senior aide, Fazel Sancharaki.

Karzai's camp, however, described the new figures as meaningless without certification by the election commission -- a step that was originally envisioned as a formality. The commission made no immediate statement in response to the fraud panel's finding.

A Karzai campaign spokesman, Wahid Omar, expressed "significant doubts" about the audit, which was based on a statistical sampling of suspect ballots, and said he did not know whether it would be certified.

"This report does not add to anybody's information in any way," Omar said of the eight-week investigation.

The contentious process has left many Afghans disillusioned and angry.

"People are disappointed, really disappointed," said Afghan political analyst Abdulhadi Hairan. "It will be hard for them to trust the next government."

The weeks since the vote have spotlighted the deterioration in Karzai's relations with the U.S. Once the darling of the Bush administration, he has in recent years been tarred by allegations of mismanagement and corruption.

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