Afghanistan's electoral crisis reached a new impasse Monday as a United Nations-backed watchdog group declared that hundreds of thousands of votes for incumbent President Hamid Karzai were fraudulent.
International monitoring groups say the Electoral Complaints Commission has invalidated so many of Karzai's votes that his total has dropped below the more than 50 percent he needed for an outright victory.
But it was unclear whether Karzai would accept the findings and support a runoff vote, or bend to increasing diplomatic pressure from the United States and other Western powers to defuse the crisis by accepting some sort of power-sharing arrangement in forming a new government.
The United States Institute of Peace and the U.S.-based monitoring group Democracy International both say the audit shows that Karzai got about 48.3 percent of the vote, while the results for his closest rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, rose from 28 percent to about 31 percent.
The audit results come after an Aug. 20 election that was marred by widespread allegations of fraud. The commission's report confirming those allegations comes as the Obama administration is weighing its military options in Afghanistan, including the possibility of deploying thousands of additional troops.
The Obama administration signaled Sunday that it would postpone any decision on sending more troops to the region until the election has been settled. Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, told CNN that the question is, "Do you have a credible Afghan partner for this process that can provide the security and the type of services that the Afghan people need?"
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who favors the proposed troop buildup, said Monday that it "makes sense" to hold off on a decision to deploy more troops until the election crisis has been sorted out.
According to Afghan election law, the revised result should force a runoff election between Karzai and Abdullah, but it is not clear whether the Afghan-led body that runs the elections will accept the findings of fraud.
The Independent Election Commission, which organized Afghanistan's balloting, has said it has questions about the fraud investigation. The IEC proclaimed just last month that provisional results showed Karzai winning, with 54.6 percent of the vote.
But Karzai's rivals and international observers said the president's supporters stuffed ballot boxes so blatantly that in some areas the number of votes for Karzai exceeded the number of registered voters.
Afghan law says that the U.N.-backed complaint commission is the final arbiter of complaints about the election, but Karzai's supporters on the Independent Election Commission say the fraud investigation has gone far beyond a normal recount.
Karzai's campaign spokesman Wahid Omar, told reporters in Kabul: "I don't think we can make any judgment based on the figures announced today." Karzai supporters have said that the complaint commission is a tool for Western meddling in Afghanistan's electoral process.
Analyst Alexander Thier says the commission's report makes clear that Karzai's vote total was far short of what election officials have been announcing.
"I don't think that, with this scale of fraud hanging over him, Karzai can remain the leader of Afghanistan unless there's some further solution," says Thier, director for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the United States Institute of Peace. "There needs to be a deal, or there needs to be a runoff."
A runoff election might be problematic, says Marvin Weinbaum, of the Middle East Institute. Weinbaum, who served as a monitor during the election, says that in theory, it is a good idea. "Karzai would probably prevail," he says, thereby gaining credibility.
The question, though, is whether the Afghan-led commission can stage a runoff election that is any more credible than the first round. The danger is that "if they go to a second round, there will be fraud, but it will simply be smarter," says Weinbaum.
Jockeying on the part of both the major candidates may now be a matter of trying to negotiate the best possible deal in forming a coalition government.
Representatives for Karzai and Abdullah have been talking, but Abdullah has insisted on waiting until the final count before publicly considering an agreement.
Weinbaum says that, in order to reach any kind of durable governing coalition, Karzai would have to agree to some substantial concessions, such as breaking deals he has made to win the political support of powerful warlords.
"In the end, I hope it doesn't come down to simply trading off some ministerial positions, because that would look like the kind of backroom dealing Karzai has been involved in throughout," Weinbaum says.