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Afghan Vote Questions May Take Months To Resolve

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Afghan Vote Questions May Take Months To Resolve

Afghanistan

Afghan Vote Questions May Take Months To Resolve

Afghan Vote Questions May Take Months To Resolve

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U.N. and Afghan officials confirmed reports of fraud in the Aug. 20 presidential elections and ordered a partial recount. The latest returns from the Afghan Election Commission show incumbent President Hamid Karzai now has enough votes to avoid a run-off with his nearest challenger.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Noah Adams filling in here for just one more day.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block. Great to have you in here, Noah.

In Afghanistan, it was a day of confusion. The election watchdog backed by the U.N. ordered a recount of ballots from last month's presidential election due to concerns over fraud. Soon afterward, Afghan election officials announced that President Hamid Karzai has received enough votes to be declared the outright winner. NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson sorts through the conflicting reports from Kabul.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Hamid Karzai may have the votes on paper, but here in front of Kabul's popular city center mall, the question of who will be the country's next president is far from settled. Mohammed Akbar(ph) is a van driver waiting to pick up customers.

Mr. MOHAMMED AKBAR (Van Driver): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: He says he could care less who wins, but he asked that on principle he wants ballots from last month's elections to be recounted if there was fraud.

(Soundbite of vehicles)

NELSON: In a nearby sweet shop, customer Sameer Roshan(ph) agrees a recount is needed.

Mr. SAMEER ROSHAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Roshan says he and others who went to the polls last month want their votes to mean something. He says they need to know the process is honest. Few here believe that is the case. That includes the three Western and the two Afghan members of the Electoral Complaints Commission. They announced they found clear and convincing evidence of fraud at a number of polling stations in three provinces where Karzai was the favorite candidate.

The U.N.-backed commission ordered Afghan election officials to recount ballots at polling centers with 100 percent turnout, and at polling stations where more than 95 of each 100 votes cast went to a particular candidate. Such turnouts and results are deemed questionable given Taliban attacks and voter apathy on Election Day. The spokesman for Karzai's main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, lauded the commission's order saying it vindicates his camp and echoes what he has alleged all along.

Karzai's campaign officials couldn't be reached for comment. The commission ordered the recount to be done in front of the commission and other international and Afghan observers. Daoud Ali Najafi, who is Afghanistan's top election official, made it clear at a late afternoon news conference that he was not pleased with the Complaints Commission for a number of reasons.

Mr. DAOUD ALI NAJAFI (Chief Electoral Officer, Independent Election Commission, Afghanistan): Today, we received a decision from the ECC that the Dari version, the Persian version was - did not match with the English version. That was not clear. That is why we sent it officially back with a letter to the ECC and asked for explanation.

NELSON: Najafi says his workers have already set aside tainted votes from some 600 polling centers. He says the tally he released today representing nearly 92 percent of polling centers across Afghanistan is valid. That tally has Karzai receiving 54 percent of the votes and Abdullah trailing with 28 percent. Najafi adds the final count will be completed within the next few days.

Mr. NAJAFI: We should have all the result, all the polling decision, then based on that criteria, then we can implement what ECC ordered.

NELSON: He adds it could take months to do what the Complaints Commission is mandating, and the commission has made it clear it will not certify a final tally until the investigations and the recounts are complete. Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy here issued a statement calling on the candidates and their supporters to be patient and avoid pronouncements. It urged them to let the Election Commission and Complaints Commission finish their work. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met with President Karzai last night and is said to have delivered that same message in person.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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Karzai Widens Lead As Afghan Vote Recount Ordered

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.

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