KABUL — Ballots from about 10 percent of Afghanistan's polling stations need recounting because of suspicions of fraud, the chief election watchdog said Tuesday, increasing the chances that President Hamid Karzai could face a runoff.
Afghanistan's second direct presidential vote, a critical test of the West's effort to foster democracy in the country, has been tainted by allegations of massive fraud, and the final results, which were to be announced Thursday, may now be weeks away.
Meanwhile, diplomatic maneuverings to agree on an outcome that would be credible to Afghans and the outside world turned public Tuesday with confirmation that Peter Galbraith, the top American official at the U.N. mission here, left the country following a disagreement with his boss, Norwegian diplomat Kai Eide, over the election.
"Primarily, we had a somewhat different approach to the election process," Eide told The Associated Press.
Galbraith confirmed that he and Eide disagreed over how to deal with election fraud, "but that does not mean we're not both opposed to it." He said he would return to Afghanistan after briefing the U.N. Security Council at the end of the month.
Speaking to the AP by telephone from Vermont, he said the Independent Election Commission had voted 6-1 for a formula to root out corrupt ballots, only to reverse itself the next day claiming it had no legal way to enforce those standards.
"I leave it to others to decide the plausibility of their decision," he said.
Grant Kippen, the Canadian head of the Electoral Complaints Commission, the U.N.-backed body charged with investigations of allegations of fraud, said that ballots from more than 2,500 of the approximately 26,300 polling sites in the Aug. 20 election need to be recounted.
He said it was not clear how long that would take but hinted that weeks of work remain.
Afghan election officials said they would comply but declined to estimate how long the recounts would take, said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the election commission.
The U.N.-backed complaints panel, which is independent of the Karzai-appointed election commission, has ordered a recount of ballots from stations that had 100 percent turnout or where a candidate received more than 95 percent of the valid votes.
The complaints panel last week threw out ballots from 83 polling stations because of fraud allegations, all in areas of support for Karzai. Thousands of fake ballots were submitted across the country, and returns showed Karzai winning 100 percent of the vote in some districts.
The most serious complaints were lodged in southern Afghanistan, where Karzai's fellow ethnic Pashtuns predominate, though Kippen said that all provinces were affected by the recount order.
The recounts raise the possibility that Karzai's lead could drop below the 50 percent threshold, forcing the country to hold a second-round runoff between him and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
According to the latest tally, Karzai was outpolling Abdullah 54 percent to 28 percent with 5 percent of votes still to be counted and 2 percent quarantined for suspected fraud.
The Abdullah campaign believes 20 to 25 percent of polling stations should be voided for fraud, said campaign spokesman Fazel Sancharaki.
The Karzai campaign is waiting for the commission to explain its decision, said spokesman Waheed Omar.
Eide said if a second round of voting is needed, it should be held before the snows arrive, cutting off the mountain passes. To wait until the summer "would leave us without a legitimate government in a country that is in a serious armed conflict, and I think that's dangerous," he said.
The departure of Galbraith, Eide's political deputy, raised questions about how much pressure the U.N. team might be applying to election officials and whether the U.N. and U.S. see eye-to-eye on the vote count.
Eide declined to spell out what led to Galbraith's departure but insisted his position was in complete harmony with the U.S. Embassy's, while embassy spokeswoman Caitlin Hayden said the relationship is "strong and stronger than it's ever been."
U.N. peacekeeping chief Alain Le Roy, who oversees the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, said he spoke to Eide Tuesday. He said Galbraith "has not quit the mission ... he was not fired, not at all," and had left "with full agreement of Kai Eide."
"What is true also (is) that there has been clearly a difference of opinion between the two, mostly about a question of style or personalities, and not on what to do concerning the election but how to do it," Le Roy said.
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer contributed reporting from the United Nations.