Karzai Leads Afghan Vote With 54 Percent Amidst Fraud Allegations

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KABUL — Afghan officials issued full preliminary results Wednesday showing President Hamid Karzai got 54.6 percent of the vote in last month's election, a result that could be annulled by mounting fraud allegations. European Union election monitors say fraud is indicated in more than a quarter of the 5.6 million votes counted.

The Aug. 20 vote has been so tainted by reports of ballot-box stuffing and questionable tallies that many expect the final results to vary widely from the preliminary count after fraudulent ballots are thrown out.

If enough votes are thrown out for Karzai to drop below 50 percent, it will force him into a two-man runoff with top challenger Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who has 27.7 percent of the vote. The preliminary count gave Karzai 3.1 million votes to Abdullah's 1.6 million.

Recounts and investigations are likely to take weeks, pushing the date for any runoff well past the original plan for the first week of October. Snow starts blocking villages and roads in the mountainous country in November, so a long delay could make a second round logistically unfeasible until the spring.

The wait for a runoff could leave Afghanistan with a power vacuum at a time when Taliban attacks are increasing, and undermine support abroad for a war backing an apparently corrupt administration. Certified results originally were to have been released this week, with any runoff occurring two weeks later.

A spokesman said Abdullah would not comment on the release of the full results but would speak with reporters Thursday.

Waheed Omar, a spokesman for Karzai's campaign, said the president is "clearly leading in the elections and we have bypassed the 50 percent benchmark that is required for someone to win the first round. We hope that when the certified results are announced, we will win the election in the first round."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly stressed that the results were just preliminary.

"They're not final, and we're still waiting for the certified results," he said. "The certified results will only come after the independent electoral commission and the electoral complaints commission has carried out their investigations thoroughly, and done all the required audits and recounts."

"We welcome this next step in the process, but caution patience to everybody to await the final certified results," he said.

A U.N.-backed complaints commission is examining thousands of potentially fraudulent ballots. The commission, which is the final arbiter of the vote results, has ordered a massive audit and recount of about 10 percent of voting stations. The group has already invalidated ballots from 83 polling stations because of fraud allegations, all in areas with high support for Karzai.

EU observers said about 1.5 million of the 5.6 million ballots counted should have been held out because they have indications of fraud according to guidelines set out by election officials ahead of the vote – turnout at or above 100 percent, or more than 90 percent of votes cast for one candidate.

"All of these votes should have been quarantined and investigated," said Dimitra Ioannou, the group's deputy chief observer.

About 1.1 million of those votes were cast for Karzai. If all of them are taken out of the count, he would fall below the 50 percent mark.

Outside monitors have accused the Afghan election commission, which is run by Karzai appointees, of loosening its own fraud-identification measures part way through the counting.

The deputy head of the U.N. mission here 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. The official, Peter Galbraith, left Afghanistan this weekend after a dispute with his boss, Kai Eide, over the U.N.'s approach to the fraud allegations.

Daoud Ali Najafi, the chief electoral officer for the Afghan election commission, said results from more than 600 polling stations were not included in Wednesday's release because of suspicious vote tallies. He said the EU observers were stepping beyond their authority as monitors by questioning the official calculations.

Election day itself was marred by Taliban threats and attacks that killed dozens and shut polling stations. Najafi said turnout was about 38.7 percent, a much lower figure than the 70 percent turnout in Afghanistan's first direct presidential election in 2004.

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, although Grant Kippen, the Canadian head of the Electoral Complaints Commission, said all provinces were affected by the recount order.

Kippen has said the recounts it has ordered because of fraud will affect more than 2,500 of the 26,300 polling stations open on Aug. 20.

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