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Afghan Official Gives 2-Week Window For New Vote

HEIDI VOGT   09/24/09 09:28 AM ET   AP

Afghanistan Election

KABUL — Afghanistan has a two-week window to realistically hold any presidential runoff vote before winter sets in, an election official said Thursday in a stark acknowledgment that a quick decision is needed on whether to hold new balloting.

Preliminary results from Afghanistan's Aug. 20 vote show President Hamid Karzai winning outright with 54.6 percent of the vote. However, a raft of fraud charges are currently being investigated. If enough votes are thrown out, Karzai could dip below the 50 percent threshold needed to avoid a runoff with leading challenger Abdullah Abdullah.

Delaying a runoff until spring 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.

Daoud Ali Najafi, the chief electoral officer of the Afghan election commission, said the window for a runoff has narrowed to the last two weeks in October. Ballot papers and other materials have already been ordered and will be in place by the third week of October, a U.N. group assisting the commission has said.

Najafi said it would be nearly impossible to hold a vote after the end of October because entire provinces get closed down by winter snows.

"The first week of November, it's a very difficult time" because of blocked roads and inaccessible villages in the north, Najafi said.

He cited as an example the last presidential election, held on Oct. 9, 2004. Heavy snow in the Panjshir valley just north of Kabul meant some ballot boxes nearly weren't retrieved, Najafi said.

A runoff has seemed increasingly likely in recent weeks as independent analyses of the preliminary results showed more and more indications of fraud. The European Union monitoring team said about 1.1 million of Karzai's 3.1 million votes were questionable. If even a third of those suspect ballots are thrown out, Karzai will fall below 50 percent.

Certified results from the original vote have been delayed by the reports of ballot stuffing, suspicious tallies and voter coercion. The fraud investigations are not yet complete and recounts of about 10 percent of polling stations ordered by a U.N.-backed fraud panel have yet to begin.

The recounts and audits have been delayed because officials are working out a system to count only a sampling of suspect votes. The idea is to speed a process Afghan officials originally said could last two or three months.

Najafi said he is hopeful that final results will be known with enough time to hold any runoff this fall, but said it is not worth compromising the integrity of the vote to rush the process. The vote needs to meet international standards to confer legitimacy, he said.

Asked what would happen if a runoff was called for but could not be held before November, Najafi said the commission would try to negotiate a solution with all parties.

The Afghan election commission has the power to reschedule polls – it pushed back the Aug. 20 vote from spring because of the need for better security and more time to prepare. However, Najafi said the commission would be unlikely to make such a decision about a second round alone.

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Filed by Ami Cholia  |