Afghanistan looking for way forward after election

Afghanistan looking for way forward after election

Afghanistan's electoral officials searched for a way Monday to salvage an election marred by reports of ballot stuffing and phantom voters, mulling how much of the vote to throw out because of fraud, AP reported.

Repeated delays in announcing full results from the Aug. 20 presidential vote, along with mounting evidence of fraud, have raised fears of new political instability in Afghanistan at a time of rising Taliban violence and an increased U.S. military presence.

An election complaints commission supported by the U.N. has said it found "clear and convincing" evidence of fraud in several areas and ordered about 2 percent of the ballots quarantined. The big question now is if the cheating was large-scale enough to overturn President Hamid Karzai's lead in the count so far.

The Afghan-run Independent Election Commission was meeting Monday morning and would to make an announcement later, spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said. The commission had been expected to say when it would announce long-delayed full preliminary results, but later it issued a brief statement saying only that there would be no further reporting of vote counts Monday.

The U.S. and its allies were counting on the election to bolster support for the Afghan government, but instead reports of election fraud have raised the prospect of a protracted battle over results.

The latest partial results from more than two dozen candidates have Karzai with 54 percent and leading challenger Abdullah Abdullah with 28 percent. The numbers show the president on the path to outright victory - unless the votes eliminated over fraud complaints pull him back down below the 50 percent threshold requiring a two-man runoff.

The current results reflect 93 percent of polling stations, with 5 percent of the votes still to be counted and the remaining 2 percent quarantined for suspected fraud.

On Sunday, the election commission met with officials from the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission to try to work out a timeline for releasing the full count, Noor said. He would give no further details.

The complaints board has the power to throw out suspicious ballots, and it has already invalidated the results in scores of voting stations in southeastern Afghanistan, Karzai's political base.

It has called for recounts and audits in hundreds of other polling stations in the same region.

While Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has said he will accept the election outcome if all the tainted results are thrown out, there is a risk that throwing out blocks of votes from an entire region will leave those in the southeast feeling cheated.

Karzai's lead is almost certain to shrink as the U.N.-backed commission completes investigations of hundreds of allegations of fraud.

The key is whether it tosses out enough votes to require a runoff, which would be difficult to organize. Already, turnout was as low 30 percent to 40 percent in the Aug. 20 vote amid Taliban threats and attacks. Participation in a runoff might be even lower, undermining the legitimacy of the eventual winner.

And it's unclear that there would be any better protection against fraud in a second round vote. Many of the provinces showing the highest incidences of fraud are also areas that are too violent for independent observers to visit. And the same Independent Election Commission that Abdullah accuses of engineering the cheating in the August ballot would be in charge of organizing the runoff.

Plus, there is a narrow window to hold a nationwide vote before the onset of winter makes many remote areas inaccessible.

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