Afghan election officials announced preliminary results Tuesday that would give President Hamid Karzai an outright victory in the Aug. 20 election, but a U.N.-backed commission ordered a recount of ballots from questionable polling stations, saying it had "clear and convincing evidence of fraud."
The developments Tuesday add more uncertainty to the election process, already tainted by allegations of massive vote fraud that has invalidated hundreds of thousands of ballots. An elections official said a recount of questionable ballots could take months.
U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met Monday with Karzai to discuss the election. Although an embassy spokeswoman declined to provide details, U.S. officials in Kabul told reporters privately that Eikenberry urged Karzai not to claim victory based on the disputed count.
Karzai for the first time exceeded more than 50 percent of the vote in preliminary results. The head of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, Daoud Ali Najafi, said that with almost 92 percent of the country's polling sites counted, Karzai has just over 54 percent of the vote.
If Karzai fails to get more than 50 percent of the vote, he would be forced into a runoff election with his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah. The election commission says Abdullah, a former foreign minister, got just over 28 percent.
Najafi says the preliminary count did not include votes from more than 600 polling stations where ballots were spoiled or where there were strong indications of fraud.
The Electoral Complaints Commission, a separate body funded by the United Nations, is investigating allegations ranging from ballot-box stuffing to vote counts from polling stations that allegedly never opened. The United States and other Western nations view a credible election as key to creating public support for Afghanistan's government in its efforts to fight the Taliban insurgency.
The allegations of fraud raise the potential for political disarray in Afghanistan and pose a challenge to the U.S. and its allies fighting the insurgency, says analyst Alexander Thier. What if Karzai still manages to stay above 50 percent of the vote even with a significant number of ballots discounted?
"Let's say the conclusion is that [Karzai] tried to steal the election, but that he still had enough of a legitimate margin to win," says Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "Does that absolve Karzai from being involved in the fraud? I don't think the opposition will accept that as a solution."
Commission officials say they are investigating more than 720 major fraud claims.
The Associated Press quoted Western officials as saying that some sites reported results in suspiciously rounded blocks of 200, 300 or 500 votes. They say much of the apparent fraud took place in the southern parts of the Afghanistan, where security is poor and Karzai has strong support.
The Complaints Commission has ordered recounts at all polling stations where a single candidate got more than 95 percent of the vote, or where there were more votes cast than there were eligible voters.
The vote count was scheduled to be officially certified sometime late this month, but Najafi said a recount of challenged votes could take "two or three months."
About 4.3 million votes have been tallied, but some 424,000 votes have been thrown out because of problems with the ballots or suspicions of fraud, according to the AP.
Karin von Hippel, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says the best option for restoring some credibility to the process would be to move on to a runoff. Von Hippel, who was an international monitor during the voting in Kabul, says she has heard estimates that there could be as many as 1 million fraudulent votes.
"That's not to say that a runoff wouldn't be fraught with problems, as well," von Hippel says. But she notes that there are more measures that could be taken to detect fraud, such as counting the number of people who enter and leave a polling place and comparing that with the vote count.