On Saturday, presidential candidate Mirwaiz Yasini walked into the retro-chic Intercontinental Hotel in Kabul and dumped hundreds of ripped up ballots in the lobby – discarded votes for the opposition, he said. Journalists on a break between optimistic press conferences from international monitoring groups and the election commission rifled through the sheets.
They contained votes for candidates other than Mr. Karzai and bore a stamp from polling station workers. Mr. Yasini said his campaign workers found these scattered around the southern city of Spin Boldak after his observers were barred from polling stations by border police.
Karzai's main challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, added to the allegations of fraud Sunday, saying ballots marked for Karzai were coming in from volatile southern districts where no vote was held, and that turnout was being reported as 40 percent in areas where only 10 percent of the people voted.
"This is a sign or evidence of widespread rigging," Abdullah said, adding that he has no faith in the chief of the country's Independent Election Commission, a Karzai appointee.
Official vote tallies – legitimate or not – are not expected until Sept. 7, while some preliminary figures may be released Tuesday. With Karzai's rivals accusing the incumbent of committing fraud to win without a runoff, the vote count leaves open the possibility for four scenarios. All hold pitfalls for Afghanistan's Western backers.
A big Karzai win
If Mr. Karzai manages to win handily, many Afghans will believe the election was stolen.
"I will congratulate Mr. Karzai on his successful coup," says Afghan analyst Waheed Muzdja in Kabul.
This result spells serious trouble for NATO's counterinsurgency effort here. Security experts emphasize that it's extremely difficult to defeat an insurgency when coalition forces are supporting a government with no legitimacy. Support back home for the war may also fade faster.
One solution – declaring the election invalid – appears nearly impossible.
An independent body called the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has been set up to adjudicate fraud complaints. But its mandate is limited to investigate specific incidents – not to determine whether they may add up to a thrown election.
"We're not talking about outcomes in terms of the ranking of the candidates and who's going to be the winner," says Maarten Halff, an ECC commissioner. "It's impossible to tell from each incident how many votes would be involved."
Their findings go to the Independent Election Commission, which has the power to certify the results, but was appointed by the president with no outside oversight.
The international community could cry foul, but may be disinclined to do so.
"The international community has no choice – it has to come out at the end saying it was reasonably fair," says Marvin Weinbaum, scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington. "We gave this election such a critical status, we really imbued it with such importance that to say it failed is to suggest there's no legitimate government."
Nor do many here expect an Iranian-style popular uprising in the streets. Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, says he rules out encouraging civil disobedience, saying it would be "too risky."
A close win for Karzai
Many Western stakeholders are seeing a 51 percent win for Karzai as the best-case outcome, says an international election monitor barred from speaking openly during the election process. Such a result would avoid a messy run-off but perhaps appear credible.
However, it would also rob Karzai of much claim to a popular mandate. He would emerge more dependent on controversial warlords who backed him during the election in exchange for positions at the table.
If no candidate emerges with a majority of the votes, a runoff between the top two vote getters is scheduled for Oct. 1. Privately, some educated Afghans in Kabul speak with dread about this outcome. They worry the country remains too weak to organize a run-off so soon and keep supporters – and their passions – in check.
For those officials whose job security depends on Karzai's return, a run-off could come as a surprise – and a fright.
"Ministers, governors, members of Parliament, police chiefs – if they see that their jobs are really at risk, of course they will do their best to keep it," says Fahim Dashty, editor of the local newspaper Kabul Weekly.
Abdullah, the candidate, says that the international community is committed to a run-off and that it can be arranged. He says his campaign is ready as well, but may need to raise more funds to pay to transport voters to the polls on Oct. 1.
Abdullah eventually wins
An Abdullah victory would be historic: Afghanistan has never witnessed a peaceful transition of power. It would mark an important step toward democracy.
It would also ignite hope for a changed government.
"Whether he is able to bring these changes or not, is another issue," says Mr. Dashty. "I think if he gathers a professional team, honest, and committed, then it can be better than the current government."
Karzai's campaign has argued that an Abdullah presidency could cause further unrest among Afghanistan's dominant ethnic group, the Pashtuns, who historically have chafed at being ruled by leaders who are not fully Pashtun. Abdullah is half Tajik, half Pashtun. The Taliban insurgency rises from the Pashtun regions.
Many Afghan analysts reject this.
"There is still an uprising now with a Pashtun president," says Wadir Safi, a professor of law at Kabul University. The Taliban movement does not feed off ethnic Pashtun nationalism, he adds, meaning that the election of a half-Pashtun leader will probably not add to their momentum.