- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 30, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | President Hamid Karzai widened his lead over his main challenger in election returns released Saturday, creeping toward the 50 percent mark that would enable him to avoid a runoff in the divisive presidential contest.

Mr. Karzai’s top challenger Abdullah Abdullah stepped up his fraud charges, raising doubts whether the former foreign minister’s followers would accept the incumbent if he wins in the first round.

Accusations of fraud in the Aug. 20 vote have poured into the Electoral Complaint Commission, which must investigate the allegations before final results can be announced.

Fraud allegations from Mr. Abdullah and other presidential candidates as well as low turnout in the violent south could strip the election of legitimacy, not only among Afghans but also among the United States and its international partners that have staked their Afghan policies on support for a credible government.

British Prime Minister Gordon Brown paid a surprise visit Saturday to British troops in southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. A British Marine was killed by a bomb in Helmand on the day of the visit, the Ministry of Defense said in London.

Figures released Saturday show Mr. Karzai with 46.2 percent of the vote against Mr. Abdullah’s 31.4 percent. The results are based on 35 percent of the country’s polling stations, meaning the percentages could still change dramatically.

Few results have been announced from northern Balkh province, where Mr. Abdullah was expected to run strong, and from some southern Pashto-speaking provinces where Mr. Karzai draws his support.

Mr. Karzai’s aides appeared confident that the president would score a first-round victory and avoid a runoff, which would probably be held in October if needed.

By contrast, Mr. Abdullah has been stepping up his charges, telling Italy’s RAI television that Mr. Karzai was responsible for “state-crafted, massive election fraud.”

“If we allow he who robbed the votes of this country to move forward, we would give the Afghan people a future that they do not want to see, and I think this goes also for the international community,” Mr. Abdullah said in the Italian interview.

Mr. Abdullah said he would keep his protests “within the confines of the law.”

“But the fact is that the foundations of this country have been damaged by this fraud, throwing it open to all kinds of consequences, including instability,” he added. “It is true that the Taliban are the first threat to this country, but an illegitimate government would be the second.”

International officials - including President Obama - were quick to congratulate Afghans for pulling off the vote in the face of Taliban threats and violence. But the massive fraud allegations that have surfaced since then have cast a dark shadow over the process.

Senior officials from 27 countries - including U.S. special envoy Richard C. Holbrooke - are to meet in Paris on Wednesday to discuss Afghanistan, and the disputed election is likely to dominate the agenda.

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