Fraud Threatens Afghan Election Credibility

Amidst charges of voter fraud, ballots are still being counted in last month's presidential election in Afghanistan. The next batch of partial results will likely be released Saturday. It could take weeks to find out if any candidate won the polls outright, or whether there wil be a runoff election.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro.

When the Taliban hijacked two fuel tankers in Northern Afghanistan, NATO responded with bombs. The fuel tankers exploded, dozens of people were reportedly killed. And in the country's capital, Kabul, people are still counting ballots in Afghanistan's presidential election. We're expecting more partial results from that election tomorrow, but it could still take weeks to find out if any presidential candidate won the polls outright, or whether there will be a runoff election.

We join NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, who is in Kabul. Good morning.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Good morning, Ari.

SHAPIRO: First, tell me about this attack on these two fuel tankers. What happened there?

NELSON: Well, this occurred overnight. Apparently, these two tankers were bringing fuel to NATO and were traveling on the main road when they were hijacked by Taliban fighters. They tell us the Taliban fighters were making off of these two tankers, apparently a NATO air strike was called in, and in fact struck these two tankers. Now we understand the casualties to be at least 90, killed and wounded combined, and among those are an unknown number of civilians, who apparently were along to receive some of the fuel that was being distributed by the militants.

SHAPIRO: Take us back to where you are in Kabul, where the vote count is still happening from the presidential election. Where does the tally stand right now?

NELSON: Well, right now, about 60 percent of the votes that were cast on August 20th have been tallied, and so far there's no candidate who has enough votes to avoid a runoff election, as you had mentioned a bit earlier. The two top vote-getters at this stage are incumbent president Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. And Afghan election officials expect that the preliminary tally will be finished by Tuesday, but the problem is that until allegations of election fraud are resolved, the tally is meaningless.

SHAPIRO: Well, who's handling all of these complaints of voter fraud?

NELSON: There is an Election Complaints Commission that has three Western members and two Afghan members. And they have a team of investigators that work with them, as well. Basically, what they've been doing up until a couple of days ago was sorting through all the complaints to figure out which ones are ones that could actually change the outcome of the election. And so that process has now been finished. And so now they're moving into the investigative phase. And this is pretty serious, because these complaints they're looking at could result in everything from ballot boxes being thrown out to polling stations being basically declared invalid, any results from those polling stations, to even ordering a new vote.

SHAPIRO: So, how do these allegations eventually get resolved? And does it threaten to throw the credibility of this presidential election into question?

NELSON: Certainly, that is a big question mark, and it's something that Afghans and the West are waiting for results on. Basically, what's going to happen at this stage is the investigative phase, which could take weeks, according to the Canadian who heads the Election Complaints Commission, Grant Kippen.

SHAPIRO: Well, looking ahead, Soraya, how do you see this all playing out? How do you expect it all to be resolved?

NELSON: Well, the prevailing theory or prevailing thought is that, in fact, this will go to a runoff. I mean, even at this stage, the numbers do not show that anybody has an outright margin of victory. I mean, you have to have 50.1 percent of the vote. And so that will delay sort of the heightened tensions that we're seen here in the country over who actually wins.

SHAPIRO: If a runoff is the most likely outcome, does that, in some sense, mitigate the problem of these fraud complaints, because eventually there's going to be a runoff election anyway.

NELSON: Well, it might diffuse the tensions, but the feeling is that the commission really does have to address the issue of fraud. I mean, there have just been so many widespread allegations, more than 2,200. Everybody knows something's been going on. And so, if the commission were to come back and say no, there's no fraud, and the election commission comes and says we don't have enough votes, so we will have a runoff, I don't think that's going to be enough. So I don't think this is going to be resolved by any stretch, just with even - with what the commission comes up with, or with a runoff.

SHAPIRO: Thanks, Soraya.

NELSON: You're welcome, Ari.

That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, speaking with us from Kabul.

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