Standoff over Karzai win threatens Afghan power vacuum

Conflict between the two commissions tasked with validating the vote could delay a possible runoff until after the winter snows.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    In Kabul, Afghanistan, Afghans hang portraits of Hamid Karzai during a rally in support of preliminary election results showing Karzai with 54.6 percent of the country's presidential vote.
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A standoff between the two bodies charged with validating Afghanistan's troubled elections is further delaying an already urgent situation – and could result in a dangerous power vacuum if not resolved before winter.

The votes are all counted, with 54.6 percent going to President Hamid Karzai. But they are not all valid. Mr. Karzai acknowledged Thursday for the first time that some of his supporters – not just his opponents – perpetrated fraud: "There were some government officials who were partial toward me."

If enough of Karzai's votes are tossed out and he slips below 50 percent, he would face a runoff election. But a runoff would be problematic after October, when heavy snows severely limit transportation in parts of the mountainous country, meaning the election results may not be finalized until spring.

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The Independent Election Commission (IEC) – whose head is appointed by Karzai – says it cannot conduct a recount of some 10 percent of the country's polling stations in time for an autumn runoff vote. Instead, it is petitioning to change the criteria for the recount in a way that would minimize the time required – and probably preserve more votes for Mr. Karzai.

This is news to the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), a group of international and Afghan officials tasked with resolving election disputes. They ordered the audit and recount back on Sept. 8, and will decide which votes to toss out. Each group says it is waiting on the other to get started.

The IEC appears to be trying to play out the clock, taking advantage of an election process that has no clear arbiter, says Candace Rondeaux, a Kabul-based analyst with the International Crisis Group.

"It's very clear that they [the IEC] plan to foot-drag until the very last minute until the first snow," says Ms. Rondeaux. Given this, as well as the more than 660 serious complaints that the ECC still has to adjudicate, she sees no scenario where a runoff could be held this year.

Mid-October deadline due to snow

The IEC denies it is delaying the process, which involves checking the seals on ballot boxes for evidence of tampering and then recounting actual ballots and comparing the total with the tally reported.

IEC only has three teams that would have to travel to 34 provinces to conduct the recount ordered by the ECC, says Daoud Ali Najafi, the IEC's chief electoral officer. That would take a month and half – or until November – but any runoff would have to happen by the second week of October to avoid the snow, he adds.

But that doesn't mean it is too late for a runoff this year, he says. Instead, he is waiting for the ECC to decide if it will drop one of the two conditions for triggering a polling station audit. The ECC wants all polling stations audited that saw either 100 percent or greater turnout, or showed tallies of 95 percent or greater for one candidate where more than 100 people voted.

"We thought that if both clauses were implemented it would take 1.5 months," says Dr. Najafi. The IEC is arguing, therefore, to just recount the polling stations that meet the first clause's conditions – 100 percent or greater turnout. And Najafi says they are waiting for the ECC to start the process by deciding this point. "We are waiting for the ECC to come and start the work."

Lack of communication between IEC, ECC

That's not how Grant Kippen, chairman of the ECC, views things.

"They [the IEC] are driving the process and we are waiting for them to get back to us on the procedures, timelines, and resources needed," says Mr. Kippen. He says it was the first time he had ever heard of the 1.5 month timeline – though Najafi gave the same timeline in a Tuesday report from The New York Times. The ECC also says it has not received any requests from the IEC for a revision of the 95 percent clause.

"We are asking them to gather the information we require and then we will be able to make decisions based on that information," he says. His group has already invalidated ballots from polling stations in parts of four Afghan provinces and the IEC's audit and recount could lead to more votes being tossed out.

Kippen says his phone has been ringing off the hook and he abruptly ended a 12-minute phone interview by saying there was an explosion – audible over the phone – and he had to go. The explosion turned out to be a massive blast in the heart of Kabul that killed six Italian soldiers and 10 Afghan civilians.

Besides its disagreement with the IEC over the audit and recount, the ECC still must wade through another 660 major complaints. These complaints most likely raise the number of disputed votes beyond the 10 percent of polling stations the IEC must audit.

The IEC's contention that it cannot quickly conduct its portion of the investigation ring hollow to Ms. Rondeaux.

"I think indications are clear that there are many IEC officials that are involved in the fraud so if they have the capacity to steal the vote of Afghan voters then they should have the capacity to investigate how that happened," she says.

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