KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan has thrown out nearly a quarter of ballots cast in last month's parliamentary elections because of fraud, but it is still far from clear whether the public will accept the results as fair.
The full preliminary results from the Sept. 18 poll were released Wednesday after multiple delays as election officials struggled to weed out results from polling stations that never opened, along with bunches of ballots all cast for one candidate, or suspiciously split 50-50 between two people.
After last year's fraud-marred presidential election, the government wanted to prove to the Afghan people and international allies that it is not mired in corruption but making strides for reform.
While findings indicate that cheating was pervasive, the rulings also show election officials were doing their job this time around – by keeping fraudulent ballots out of the totals.
"They've been doing a moderately good job at detecting the fraudulent ballots and removing them. That's a positive thing," said Andy Campbell, the Afghanistan director for the National Democratic Institute, a U.S.-based election-monitoring group.
It's a major change from last year's presidential vote, when election commissioners dumped obviously fraudulent ballots into the tally to help President Hamid Karzai avoid a runoff with his top challenger. It was only after drawn-out investigations that about a million ballots were thrown out – the majority of them for Karzai.
The 2009 presidential election nearly derailed international support for Karzai, turning this year's poll into a test of whether the government is committed to reforms seen as key for justifying NATO funding and troops.
Election commission chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi said about 1.3 million votes were disqualified out of 5.6 million – or about 23 percent – because of ballot-box stuffing or manipulated totals.
In many cases, commission officials discovered as they investigated suspicious totals that they came from voting sites that never opened on election day – which was marked by rocket attacks and insurgent takeovers of polling stations in many provinces.
Other instances involved polling stations that submitted exactly 600 ballots – the precise number allotted to each station – or had the votes suspiciously split even for one or two candidates, said Abdul Ahmadzai, the commission's chief electoral officer.
But the ballot annulment may itself prompt cries of disenfranchisement. Voting was hardest to monitor in insecure areas, meaning many of the disqualified ballots likely came from the most contentious parts of provinces. And in many cases that also matches up with ethnic divisions, suggesting results could get weighted toward one ethnic group.
In the province of Ghazni, hardly anyone voted in the volatile areas dominated by the Pashtun ethnic group, while people turned out in large numbers in areas primarily occupied by the Hazara ethnic group. Of the 11 seats in Ghazni, eight went to Hazaras.
It was not immediately clear what the results released Wednesday would mean for the makeup of the 249-member parliament. Manawi said he did not have figures on how many of the winners were incumbents, though he said he believed it was about a 50-50 split between those who were returning and new representatives. An Associated Press count revealed about 73 incumbents, suggesting that about two-thirds of the representatives will be new.
Though Karzai has repeatedly bypassed the parliament by issuing laws by decree, the legislative body remains one of the few checks on his power. A legislature loaded with Karzai allies could make it easier for the president to avoid opposition.
A fraud investigation panel still needs to rule on more than 2,000 complaints deemed serious enough to affect results before they can be finalized, which could take weeks.
In some provinces, the investigations could drastically change the results. In eastern Nuristan, for examples, Ahmadzai said it was nearly impossible to untangle the fraud and they eventually released the results they had since they knew the fraud panel was planning to probe nearly all the province's voting sites.
Some candidates may also be disqualified outright if the anti-fraud panel finds they were behind attempts to manipulate results. The election commission has referred 224 candidates to the panel for investigation because they appeared to be involved in cheating, Manawi said. About 2,500 candidates ran across 34 provinces.
The commission had originally reported a lower turnout figure of about 4.3 million. That earlier figure was based on election day estimates and revised up when the actual tallies came in, said Ahmadzai.
These sorts of mathematical shifts worried some observers.
"What I've seen over the last elections, whenever figures don't add up it can mean funny business, but often it means there was a loss of control," said Martine van Bijlert, the co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a Kabul-based think tank.
Associated Press Writer Amir Shah contributed to this report.