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Afghan challenger accuses Karzai of vote-rigging

The chief challenger in the Afghan presidential elections has accused incumbent Hamid Karzai of being personally responsible for vote-rigging, in the most direct attack so far against his former boss.

Preliminary results are not due to be published until tomorrow, but yesterday Abdullah Abdullah, once a foreign minister under Karzai, held a press conference in the capital Kabul to |accuse his rival of fraud. “Widespread rigging has taken place by the incumbent, through his campaign team, and through the state apparatus, through government officials,” Mr Abdullah said.

“This is under his leadership that all these things are happening, and all these people who are responsible for this fraud in parts of the country are appointed by him. This should and could have been stopped by him,” he said. “The initial reports we are receiving are alarming.”

Mr Abdullah said his team had already lodged more than 100 complaints with election officials, providing detailed accounts of ballot-stuffing. He said government officials, including a police chief and a senior election official, had stuffed ballot boxes in favour of Mr Karzai at six districts in the provinces of Kandahar and Ghazni. He also claimed that monitors working on his side had been physically prevented from entering several voting sites.

The President’s campaign team dismissed the allegations as a response to defeat. “They have been saying things about fraud even before the elections took place,” said spokesman Waheed Omar. “Losing candidates often try to justify their loss in this way.”

The prospect of an electoral dispute between Mr Abdullah – whose core supporters are Tajiks from the North – and Mr Karzai – who draws the bulk of his support from the Pashtun south – has stoked fears of ethnic violence erupting, similar to the civil war years of the 1990s. However, yesterday Mr Abdullah urged his supporters to |remain calm while the country’s |Election Complaints Commission – an independent body where international officials have majority control |– investigates the cases.

The ECC said it had so far received 225 complaints of malpractice, of which 35 were categorised as “high priority” and 110 “priority”. The watchdog’s chief, Grant Kippen, said reported irregularities included “voter intimidation, violence, ballot-box tampering” as well as “interference” by some officials from the Independent Election Commission, the body set up to supervise polling.

Mr Kippen stressed that it is not yet known how many votes were involved, nor whether there was a critical mass that could affect the outcome of the election. Most of the vote-rigging claims are concentrated in the southern Pashtun belt, a must-win area for Mr Karzai where turnout was reported to be as low as 10 percent.

The Independent witnessed what appeared to be fraud at a polling|station in Nad-e-Ali, in Helmand province, where officials declared that more than 1,200 votes had been cast for Mr Karzai, despite witnesses saying only a handful of people had turned up.

President Karzai, who was installed as Afghanistan’s interim president in 2001 and went on to win the country’s first-ever presidential ballot in 2004, needs to capture more than 50 per cent of the votes to secure an outright first-round win and another five years in power. Opinion polls in the run-up to last Thursday’s vote had predicted that Mr Abdullah had a strong chance of forcing a run-off vote.

US President Barack Obama has staked his foreign policy credentials on winning the war in Afghanistan. With more than 100,000 Western troops in country, it is crucial that the elections are seen to be a legitimate expression of the will of the Afghan people.

However, some observers say this is almost impossible, given that many women were disenfranchised as there were not enough female election staff to carry out the pre-vote security checks, and that turnout in the south was very low because of the Taliban’s threat to exact revenge on anyone who voted.

Over the weekend, one monitoring group said militants had cut off the fingers of two voters in Kandahar province in the south, because they were stained with the indelible ink showing they had cast a ballot.