Elections Over, Tense Wait Begins For Afghans

President Obama has praised the people of Afghanistan for taking part in last week's elections, despite threats by the Taliban. But he acknowledged there could be more violence ahead as the ballots are being counted. Already, allegations of fraud are beginning to mount. Host Scott Simon talks to NPR's Jackie Northam about the forecast results.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

President Obama has praised the people of Afghanistan for taking part in this week's presidential and provincial council elections, despite threats by the Taliban. But Mr. Obama acknowledged there could be more violence ahead as the ballots are being counted. There are already allegations of fraud.

NPR's Jackie Northam joins us from our bureau in Kabul. Jackie, thanks so much for being with us.

JACKIE NORTHAM: Good morning, Scott.

SIMON: And certainly these elections are considered to be at the center of the administration's plans for Afghanistan to help create a legitimate government to stabilize the country. Are the elections being viewed as credible?

NORTHAM: Well, a lot of international monitoring groups have come to Afghanistan to try to gauge whether these elections are credible. And for the most part the consensus is yes, for a number of reasons. They say there was a robust campaign, that the candidates reached out beyond their own particular ethnic groups, that the election workers were well trained and the procedures for voting, for the most part, were in place.

But you cannot dismiss the fact that there was a very low voter turnout - much lower than what was the expected. And that's due in large part to security. The Taliban were able to scare or intimidate people enough to keep them away from the polling booth in many parts of the country.

And you know, that low and uneven turnout raises questions about the legitimacy of the election and really any new government that's put in place.

SIMON: Ballots here are still being counted, but the two leading candidates -of course, President Karzai and Dr. Abdullah - both say they're ahead in the count. Is that having any affect on the ground?

NORTHAM: Oh, it certainly is. Their statements had an immediate effect amongst the international community here, the diplomatic corps. From what we understand, the candidates' claims caused a bit of a ruckus at the U.S. embassy. Richard Holbrooke, the special representative to this region, met with the two candidates yesterday, incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his chief rival, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, and urged them to stop making these premature claims.

The U.S. embassy also issued a statement along the same lines. There's obviously a lot of concern that these sorts of claims could help stoke violence here, and it could also lead to widespread fraud and ballot stuffing during the vote counting.

SIMON: And when do they expect a final result?

NORTHAM: A final result probably won't be until later September. They were supposed to have the first preliminary results this afternoon local time, but the election commission here pushed that back until at least Tuesday. It's just taking a lot longer than they thought to count the votes and actually just to get them back to Kabul.

You know, some of these polling stations are in very remote areas and they're having to use donkeys and helicopters to transport the papers, and some of the roads are just incredibly dangerous. You know, there were a couple of attacks yesterday on convoys moving these ballots. An election worker was killed in one incident and all the ballots were burned.

So it is going to take a few days just to get even the first preliminary results, and then a couple weeks after that to get a better sense if there will be a runoff election.

SIMON: And if there is, presumably, that's between President Karzai, who is Pashtun, and Dr. Abdullah, who is Tajik. Now, there is some history between those communities. Any concern about ethnic strife?

NORTHAM: Oh, obviously. I mean, it's Afghanistan. There's always concern about ethnic strife here. But as you say, the two men come from different ethnic groups. Each of them garnered a lot of support from those groups, but not all of it. I mean, it wasn't a done deal that the votes were going to land along ethnic stripes, if you like.

But there is the potential here - this is what people are worried about, that the country could split itself into two camps if there is a runoff, and that could in fact lead to ethnic violence. But at the same time, Western officials say, look, it is not a foregone conclusion yet. Let's not go right to the edge of the, you know, the cliff at this point.

And several monitors I spoke with yesterday, international groups, said at this point really what they're more concerned about is just figuring out ways to get more people to come out and vote if there is a runoff. Because, again, the voting in the initial election was very low.

SIMON: NPR's Jackie Northam in Kabul, thanks so much.

NORTHAM: Thank you, Scott.

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