Fraud Allegations Taint Afghanistan's Ballot Count

Ballots in the Afghan presidential election are being counted, with both Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, claiming they are in the lead.

Preliminary results are not expected until Tuesday at the earliest, officials say, and final results are not expected until early September. If neither man gains 50 percent of the vote, a runoff will follow.

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Karzai's campaign spokesman, Waheed Omar, said they believe "we are well ahead" in the vote count based on reports the campaign has received.

Abdullah said his campaign's tallies suggest that a second round of voting is likely.

"These are very preliminary results, but still it puts me in the lead," he said. "It's not claiming victory. I'm saying in these early days and early preliminary results, I'm very happy."

On Saturday, one of the long-shot presidential candidates displayed torn and mangled ballot papers that he said had been cast for him and tossed away by election workers who support Karzai.

Mirwais Yasini, a parliamentarian, stood behind a table piled with ballot papers that he said his supporters found ditched outside Spin Boldak city in southern Kandahar province. The ballots bore the stamp of the Independent Election Commission, which is applied only after the ballots are used for voting.

"Thousands of them were burned," he said.

Though monitors with the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan were present in all 34 provinces, international monitoring groups were restricted by security concerns. The Washington, D.C.-based National Democratic Institute had observers in only 19 provinces, passing over many violent areas of the south and east.

An Afghan vote monitoring group said Taliban militants in Afghanistan's south cut off the fingers of two Afghan voters, carrying out a gruesome pre-election threat.

Nader Nadery of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan said Saturday that two voters in southern Kandahar province — the Taliban's spiritual birthplace — lost their fingers.

Nadery said the two fingers sliced off had been dipped in purple indelible ink, an anti-fraud measure — but one that identified voters to militants in dangerous, insurgent-held areas.

Rumors that militants would cut off fingers spread before Thursday's presidential vote. A Taliban spokesman said, however, that militants would not carry out such attacks.

U.S. and European officials praised the election, but some observers say there was widespread fraud.

One of those observers is Jean MacKenzie of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a British-based charity that helps develop local media.

"What we do know is that turnout was extremely light wherever we were able to observe," MacKenzie told NPR. "Nevertheless, we're hearing very unbelievable reports of voter turnout of 50 percent or more in places where there was likely voter turnouts of 10 percent or less. That would mean we've got massive fraud as far as the vote count goes."

MacKenzie said there were numerous reports of tribal leaders taking voter registration cards from Afghan citizens with the promise of cooking oil or wheat.

"All you need in order to vote is the number of a voter registration card. You don't need to sign anything, you don't need to leave a thumbprint. You just need a number. ... Tribal leaders were able to cast ballots."

Weeks before the vote, NPR reporters and producers were shown a dozen voter registration cards that were purchased in a local bazaar.

"If Afghans feel the election was legitimate by their standards, it will be a sign of major progress regardless of how outsiders judge the mechanics," said Anthony Cordesman, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Cordesman just returned from Afghanistan where he was among a group of defense experts advising the top commander, Gen. Stanley McChrystal.

"If they divide in anger along ethnic or sectarian lines, and if the end result is more divisive than unifying, the election will be a failure," Cordesman said. "It will inevitably mean they see the government as distant, corrupt and ineffective, and that the election has empowered the Jihadists. As a result, the way any runoff is handled or how Afghans react in the aftermath of a direct Karzai re-election will be far more important than the mechanics of the count."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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