KABUL, AFGHANISTAN – Preliminary election results announced today put incumbent president Hamid Karzai firmly in the winning stable even while the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) questioned the legitimacy of the tally, setting the stage for what appears to be a messy political battle.
At stake will be not only the credibility of the electoral process and the legitimacy of the next Afghan government, but the relationship between it and the international community.
The ECC, a UN-backed electoral watchdog, said Tuesday it had found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud in a number of polling stations." It ordered the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to conduct an audit and recount of ballot boxes in polling stations where there appeared to have been a 100 percent turnout, or where 95 percent of votes were cast in favor of one candidate.
The IEC, however, released figures giving Karzai 54.1 percent of the vote based on results from 91 percent of polling stations, saying that it could not complete the audits ordered by the ECC until all the preliminary results had been counted. It also challenged the ECC order on the grounds of an apparent error in translation.
Today’s events were the first sign of dissension within the electoral process. It is not clear whether the IEC will eventually follow the ECC's order. Chief Electoral Officer Daoud Najafi said such an exercise would “take a long time.”
“The IEC is violating its own rules where conditions are set for which kind of ballots had to be audited,” says Thomas Ruttig, an independent analyst and founder of the Afghan Analysts Network.
Candace Rondeaux, of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, says that “the response from the IEC was very disappointing. They have abdicated their responsibility and left the ball in the court of the ECC.”
Ms. Rondeaux, like other observers, was surprised at the robust stand of the ECC, which she said had taken “a more aggressive stand than was perhaps expected.”
Both the UN’s top official in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and the European Union Observer Mission (EUOM) issued statements referring to “irregularities” in the electoral process. The EUOM, in a hard-hitting statement, alleged that its findings had confirmed large-scale ballot stuffing, and that despite legal provisions on fraud detection and mitigation measures hundreds of thousands of fraudulent votes were included in the preliminary results.
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The international community was earlier criticized strongly for its rushed endorsement of the polling process and both Mr. Ruttig and Rondeaux today welcomed the change.
“I welcome that the international community is now standing up to reality. It is late but not too late,” says Ruttig, adding that the ECC now needed backing. Rondeaux also termed it “a more honest assessment” on the part of the international community.
In a short statement the US Embassy in Kabul said: “In this difficult process, we look to the Independent Electoral Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission to rigorously carry out their legal mandates to count all votes and to exclude all fraudulent votes. We call upon all candidates and their supporters to show patience as the process continues. The United States will await the results at the end of the process when ratified by the ECC, as well as the IEC, as set out in Afghanistan’s electoral law.”
The final results could still be weeks away, given the complexities of an audit and recount and the limited mandate and resources of the ECC to carry out its task. That could mean that a runoff election, if required, could go well into winter, causing consternation in a country where large parts of the mountainous terrain are inaccessible during the harsh winter months, making it impossible to conduct country-wide elections.