KABUL — The latest results from Afghanistan's presidential election show incumbent President Hamid Karzai with just over 54 percent of the vote, topping the 50-percent threshhold he needs to avoid a run-off election.
But with 92 percent of polling stations declared, Karzai's purported lead is clouded by rampant allegations of fraud and the main election watchdogs are virtually at each other’s throats.
The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) on Tuesday stepped in and ordered the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to conduct a recount of any polling station with suspect data, issuing a statement that it had found “clear and convincing evidence of fraud.”
Unless the ECC disallows what its own officials say are hundreds of thousands of suspect ballots, Karzai will walk away the clear winner in an election that few, if any, observers believe has the credibility that the Afghan government and the international community had hoped for.
“That will take a long time,” said Daoud Ali Najafi, the head of the IEC, speaking to the press on Tuesday, referring to any recount.
The data coming in from the more than 22,000 polling stations counted so far is more than suspicious — it verges on the bizarre, according to election monitors and observers.
In some areas 100 percent turnout was reported when observers counted a mere handful of hardy voters. In such cases the advantage almost invariably tilted to Karzai, by a margin of as much as 95 percent. According to the IEC’s own operating rules, this should have triggered an automatic quarantine of the votes, but observers say the IEC seems to be sidestepping the issue.
“All the documentation was correct,” Najafi insisted. “The results matched the reconciliation forms, and the number of ballots. Therefore we have to include those votes.”
This explanation was unconvincing, both to journalists covering the election and to the international diplomatic community.
“The IEC seems to be giving up even trying to stop fraud and is passing the buck to the ECC,” said a U.N. official, speaking on background. “Intense efforts are being made by the international community to get them to stick to the rules.”
But it is not just the numbers that raise eyebrows. There are allegations that ballots themselves have been crudely faked: election monitors tell of thousands of forms with the exact same check mark, some of them not even separated from the counterfoil of the ballot pad.
In other stations, the forms were not folded, which would make it impossible to fit it through the narrow opening in the ballot box. In southern provinces where there were very few females at the polls, ballot pads were completely used up — tens of thousands of votes cast by non-existent voters.
“I do not need any more time,” sighed an election expert, after spending 20 minutes examining ballot boxes in a tally center in Ghazni. “It is pretty obvious.”
All of this is in addition to the flood of anecdotal evidence that has come in from all over the country: polling station workers complaining of intimidation or outright falsification.
“There was no fraud in Nad Ali,” snorted one local candidate in Helmand Province. “The elections workers brought the boxes already stuffed.”
All eyes are now on the ECC, which is trying to investigate close to 700 “Priority A” allegations of fraud. Into this category fall those results which, if substantiated, could have a material effect on the outcome of the elections. They will have a difficult time.
“There is careful fraud and careless fraud,” said Scott Worden, one of the five ECC commissioners. “The former is much more difficult to detect.”
The ECC has brought in extra help, and now has up to 150 staff involved in the investigations. But there is only so much they can do.
“The ECC is limited by security constraints,” Worden said. “Some evidence will be very difficult to obtain.”
It is also hampered by being seen as a predominantly Western organization — three of the five commissioners are foreign and were appointed by the United Nations.
“The ECC has to be careful. It could be seen as a tool of the Americans,” said one election expert, speaking privately.
Final results were due to come out on Sept. 17. But full preliminary results have not yet been completely released, and it could be awhile before a determination can be made as to whether or not a runoff will be necessary. If no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote, the top two vote-getters will have a rematch, most likely in early October.
As of Tuesday, 91.6 percent of polling stations had been reported, with Karzai well ahead. He now has 54 percent of the total, a comfortable lead over his nearest rival, the former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah, who now has slightly over 28 percent.
But the statistics can be deceiving. The total number of valid votes counted so far totals just 5.5 million; Karzai has slightly under 3 million in his column.
One ECC official, speaking privately, estimated that about one million votes have been falsified. If the ECC can substantiate the bulk of those claims, then Karzai could dip below the magic "50 percent plus one" needed to avoid a runoff.
There is a lot of heavy-handed maneuvering going on behind the scenes, with opinion seemingly divided in the international community as to whether a second round is possible or even necessary.
“It will just be the same thing all over again,” said the election expert. “More fraud, more violence.”
Observers fear that violence may not be very far away. While all sides have appealed for calm, Abdullah has made no secret of the fact that he may not be able to control his supporters in the event of blatant falsification of the vote.
Sept. 9 is Massoud Day, the eighth anniversary of the assassination of the legendary commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud, killed just two days before 9/11. The capital is always braced for unrest on the holiday, and especially so with Abdullah, who was Massoud’s friend, advisor and spokesman, on the warpath.
He issued a statement late last week, accusing the government and the IEC of complicity in the falsification.
“Widespread rigging has taken place by the incumbent, through his campaign team, and through the state apparatus,” he said.
Worden acknowledged that many of the complaints they had received pointed a finger at the IEC, and said that they would be looking into those allegations as well.
But it is going to be an uphill battle to rescue the badly flawed Afghan elections, and the ECC is not relishing the political burden being placed on its shoulders.
“We are focused on doing our job and sticking to the evidence,” Worden said. “We have a fairly narrow mandate, and it does not expand to judgment.”
The commissioners are working round the clock to try and expedite the process, but it will be a long, slow, slog. The ECC wants to be as scrupulous as possible.
“We want to encourage trust in our work,” Worden said.
When asked if he expected that the ECC’s rulings would also encourage trust in the elections, he just shrugged and smiled.