Karzai, Abdullah both claim victory in Afghan election

Preliminary results are days away. All the campaigns have complained of fraud.

Dima Gavrysh/AP
A worker counts ballots at a mosque-turned polling station in Kabul, Afghanistan, Friday. Campaign teams for President Hamid Karzai and top challenger Abdullah Abdullah have each positioned themselves as the winner of Afghanistan's presidential election, one day after millions of Afghans braved dozens of militant attacks to cast ballots.

The top two candidates in Afghanistan's presidential race both claimed to be on their way to victory after Thursday's vote.

Meanwhile, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has received roughly 150 official allegations of election fraud and expects a significantly larger number to arrive in the coming days. With preliminary vote-count results days away, each camp is working to influence public perceptions and gather legal ammunition for appealing a possible loss.

"I would say that we were expecting a much better process," says Abdullah Abdullah, the main rival of incumbent Hamid Karzai. "The incompetence of the election commission – its independence was under question anyway – its incompetence was very evident and interference was evident."

He complained that his campaign could not deploy some 9,000 of 29,000 poll monitors because of a slow accreditation process and interference from local government officials in five provinces.

"Our observers were stopped by government officials from getting to these stations. There were a lot of threats and intimidations," says Dr. Abdullah, who says this is among the more than 100 complaints his campaign has officially filed.

The spokesman for the Independent Election Commission, the Afghan body that ran the election, says both campaigns got their badges "in a short time" and within two or three days of the vote.

Sayed Fazel Sancharaqi, an Abdullah spokesperson, claimed far more alarming incidents of fraud, including ballot box stuffing, but the campaign had not yet filed the complaints pending internal investigations. If the vote tally winds up favoring Abdullah, the campaign may have little interest in lodging such complaints.

Self-declared winners

An ebullient Abdullah portrayed himself Friday as ahead in the polls, citing some extremely preliminary tallies from provinces he could expect support. His press handler, in an exchange with a journalist, referred to Abdullah as "the president." Feeling his oats, Abdullah also made a crack about another candidate, Ashraf Ghani, saying: "I really hardly realized that he was in the race."

The spokesman for President Karzai claimed that intimidation of voters came not from government officials but from workers of the candidates. "We don't want to make a media campaign about irregularities," said Wahid Omar on Tolo, a national TV channel. "The ones we have seen we have redirected to the ECC."

All the major campaigns have filed complaints so far, says Maarten Halff, an ECC commissioner.

"There were some allegations about ballot stuffing going on and security strong guys taking over a particular station," says Mr. Halff. He says it's too early to say if any of the complaints would impact the election outcome if found true.

"The specificity of allegations are generally more advanced than what we saw during the campaign period where some of the complaints were pretty broad brush," he adds. There are more names of specific villages and people involved – though he isn't aware of any photographic or documentary evidence submitted to back up claims.

Ten percent of the total complaints in 2005

The 150 or so complaints may be just the beginning as complaints arrive with other official paperwork from the polling stations and as the ballot counting and reporting process continue. The troubled 2005 parliamentary elections here saw 1,500 complaints.

The initial assessments from independent election monitoring groups provide some fodder for a loser bent on questioning the credibility of the result.

The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, which fielded 7,368 local election observers Thursday, said its "observations raise concerns about the quality of today's elections, and about the impact of the reported incidents of violence – some gruesome."

The foundation's report mentions "patterns of fraud," disruption from grenade and rocket attacks on polls, men voting as proxies for women, malfunctioning equipment, not-so-indelible ink, and questions about the impartiality of some local IEC officials.

The International Republican Institute, which fielded 29 foreign observers, said while it "generally saw well organized, well-run polling sites ... there were, however, serious problems in the pre-election environment."

Those problems included violence ahead of polling that intimidated women in particular, credible reports of voting cards being sold, and an unusual degree of state resources used for the incumbent during the campaign.

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