- The Washington Times - Friday, September 11, 2009

KABUL, Afghanistan | A U.N.-backed fraud commission threw out votes Thursday from 83 polling stations and ordered recounts at hundreds of others in three provinces that form Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s political base, reducing his chances of avoiding an election runoff.

It was the first time the commission had flexed its muscles in the aftermath of the Aug. 20 presidential election marred by allegations of ballot stuffing, phantom polling stations and turnout at some polls that exceeded 100 percent of registered voters.

Mr. Karzai’s chief challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, charged that the massive scale of what he called “state-engineered” fraud has become clear only as the numbers have trickled out over the past three weeks.

With results in from 92 percent of the country’s polling stations, Mr. Karzai has 54 percent of the vote, according to the latest official count. That’s enough to avoid a runoff election with Mr. Abdullah.

But if the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission invalidates enough votes, Mr. Karzai’s margin could drop below 50 percent, forcing him to face Mr. Abdullah one-on-one in a second round of voting.

Decisions by this fraud commission are final under Afghanistan’s electoral law. The commission - composed of one American, one Canadian, one Dutchman and two Afghans - is releasing decisions from each province as investigations finish.

On Thursday, the commission threw out ballots from 51 polling stations in Kandahar province, 27 in Ghazni and five in Paktika. Although it did not say how many ballots were invalidated, thousands are likely involved. It ordered election officials to recount votes in hundreds of other voting centers across the three districts in the presence of observers, commission members and representatives of the candidates.

All three provinces are dominated by voters who, like Mr. Karzai, are ethnic Pashtuns and form the president’s political base.

The Karzai-appointed Independent Election Commission, which is conducting the count, says it has deducted questionable votes from its totals.

But that commission’s Web site still lists results from one polling center in the Kandahar city of Spin Boldak where Mr. Karzai received exactly 3,000 votes - 600 from each of the five polling stations.

Statisticians say such uniform results are highly unlikely and evidence of fraud.

“Of course there were fears and concerns about the possibility of fraud or rigging,” Mr. Abdullah said in an interview Thursday. “But … when you investigate it, then you see that the whole thing was state-engineered and unfortunately in collaboration with the IEC [Independent Election Commission], in most cases.”

Mr. Abdullah said he expects that, once the fraudulent ballots are excluded, Mr. Karzai’s margin will drop below 50 percent, triggering a runoff.

Investigators examined only a portion of the ballots in voting centers where there were complaints. In Kandahar’s Shorabak district they examined 15 out of 41 polling stations. Officials found evidence of ballot stuffing in every one they looked at.

In Spin Boldak, investigators found “clear and convincing evidence of ballot stuffing” in 17 of 27 polling stations checked, resulting in the invalidation of more than 6,000 ballots.

The commission ordered a recount and audit of all the remaining 354 polling stations in the district.

A top official with the IEC has said that recounting ballots at so many polling sites could take months. That raises the question of when a second-round election could even be held, given Afghanistan’s harsh winters.

The commission ordered an audit and recount countrywide of stations where turnout was at or above 100 percent, or where one candidate won more than 95 percent of the vote.

The Washington-based National Democratic Institute said its analysis of results found large numbers of stations with more than 600 votes - the maximum number of ballots they are supposed to receive - in Nuristan, Paktia, Helmand and Badghis provinces, along with others.

These areas were considered among the most dangerous places to vote, and anecdotal accounts of nearly empty polling stations suggested low voter turnout. Few international observers went to these areas because of security risks.

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