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Afghan officials disqualify votes from 450 polling places

The move could herald more mass disqualifications amid allegations of fraud in the presidential election. Nevertheless, Hamid Karzai inches toward winning.

September 07, 2009|M. Karim Faiez and Laura King

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN, AND ISTANBUL, TURKEY — Afghan election officials on Sunday announced their first mass disqualification of votes because of possible fraud in the bitterly contested presidential race, even as President Hamid Karzai edged closer to the majority he needs for a first-round victory.

Election authorities declined to say how many votes were affected when results from nearly 450 polling places were set aside pending an investigation. Because voting took place in about 26,000 locales, this probably represents only a small share of total ballots cast. But the move could herald more such disqualifications.

The Aug. 20 vote -- which began as not only a hopeful exercise in democracy but also a key element of the West's long-term strategy of a stable Afghan government taking on more security responsibilities -- is rapidly threatening to become a debacle. Supporters of Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, could react violently if they see their candidate as having been unfairly deprived of the chance to face Karzai in a runoff.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has accused the president's camp of widespread and systematic fraud. It was unclear whether the vote disqualification announced Sunday signaled election officials' genuine willingness to act on fraud allegations, which have mainly been directed at Karzai, or whether the panel of mostly presidential appointees was trying to bolster an image of impartiality as a prelude to declaring Karzai the winner.

With fraud allegations mounting, the commission's head, Daoud Ali Najafi, defended the checks and balances in place under election law.

"We're telling the candidates again and again . . . they can come to the election commission and we can resolve the problem, or they can go to the Electoral Complaints Commission," he said.

The complaints commission, a United Nations-backed body, is considering more than 2,000 claims of fraud and intimidation, nearly 700 of them potentially serious enough to affect the results. The tally, once completed, will not be official until the complaints commission certifies it -- something that was supposed to happen in mid-September, but could take far longer. Under election rules, the complaints commission can take as much time as it wants to investigate, and can even nullify the entire vote if it finds reason to do so.

The tally from last month's balloting, which took place amid a welter of Taliban threats and attacks, has been emerging a few percentage points at a time, with Karzai steadily widening his lead. On Sunday, the election commission said that with nearly three-quarters of the vote counted, Karzai had 48.6%, and Abdullah trailed with 31.7%.

The growing political turmoil coincides with the heaviest troop losses for the West in the course of the 8-year-old war. Military officials on Sunday announced the deaths of two more Americans, one in the south and one in the east. This has already been the most lethal year of the conflict for U.S. forces, with more than 180 troops killed so far.

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laura.king@latimes.com

Faiez is a special correspondent.

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