Fraud Costs Karzai First-Round Victory

International investigators have found there was massive fraud during Afghanistan's presidential election in August. The finding will cost incumbent Hamid Karzai nearly a third of his votes as well as a first-round victory. Karzai has yet to say whether he'll agree to a runoff election with his main rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

And we are waiting this morning for word from Afghanistan's president on what he will do now that many of the votes in the August presidential election have been tossed out. International investigators have found massive fraud. That finding will cost incumbent Hamid Karzai nearly a third of his votes, as well as a first round victory in the election.

That finding could restore some credibility to the much maligned election in Afghanistan, but it also adds to the country's political uncertainty.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson has this report from Kabul.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Karzai has yet to say whether he'll agree to a runoff election with his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. But a flurry of meetings with foreign officials, including U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry and Senator John Kerry yesterday, appeared to have softened the incumbent president's resolve to contest the findings by the U.N.-backed investigators. Karzai's campaign spokesman in Kabul is Waheed Omar.

Mr. WAHEED OMAR (Spokesman, President Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan): So, basically, we don't have any problem with the election going to a second round, but we want the process to work its way transparently, in that we should have a transparent result, and then we'll make our decision.

NELSON: He says no announcements will be made until Afghan election officials accept the Electoral Complaints Commission's rulings. Technically, they don't have a choice. Under the constitution, the orders are legally binding, but Omar and other commission critics claim the fraud investigations were tainted by foreign interference and political manipulation, and thus aren't necessarily valid. Such allegations, which could ultimately end up in Afghanistan's Supreme Court, could further delay the establishment of a new government here.

Mr. JAMSHID JAHESH(ph) (Senior, Kabul University): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Many here believe what Kabul University senior Jamshid Jahesh does, that their votes were stolen by foreign governments that have a stake in Afghanistan.

Mr. JAHESH: (Through translator) It's what's pushing these elections to a second round. The countries who have control here are backing a particular candidate so that he will win the second round and back their agenda in the future.

NELSON: The complaint panel's Dutch commissioner, Maarten Halff, denies that politics played any role in their findings, which will cause more than a million votes from the August polls to be set aside.

Mr. MAARTEN HALFF (Commissioner, Complaints Panel, Afghanistan): But we followed a very clear process all along. We've published our procedures. We've explained to the public and to the major campaign teams how we would work. The methodology on the audit and recount process was widely published and explained. So the - our way of working was there for everybody to see, and I think we've followed that consistently.

NELSON: Rival Abdullah's camp lauded the rulings and urged Karzai to agree to a runoff without delay. Most of the Afghan voters interviewed by NPR last night said that while they were tired over international and domestic political bickering over the election results, they would go to the polls a second time.

MEHBOOB (Hotel Manager): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Like Mehboob(ph), the 22-year-old hotel manager - who, like many Afghans, goes by one name - says his main concern is for his country to get a good president.

Mr. PIR MOHAMMAD BAKHSHI (Restaurant Worker): (Foreign language spoken)

NELSON: Or Pir Mohammad Bakhshi(ph). The restaurant worker says he hopes all Afghan workers will go out and vote because the fate of their country should be in Afghan hands. But a lot more than voter resolve will be needed to pull off a second round of elections. Besides the difficulty in finding competent poll workers and putting in place measures to prevent further fraud, weather is a major impediment.

Already, there's snow blanketing the country's higher elevations. Once the mountain passes are blocked, there will be no way to get ballot boxes in or out of the country's remote sites. That's one reason why options other than a runoff remain on the table, like a Loya Jirga, a major meeting of Afghan tribal elders and other senior leaders to determine who should rule, or establishing a coalition government between Karzai and his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, which neither side appears ready to embrace.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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