A UN-backed watchdog ruled yesterday that almost 1.3 million votes cast in Afghanistan's presidential election had been faked. The report stripped a third of President Hamid Karzai's original tally to deny him outright victory and put him under enormous international pressure to accept a run-off before winter weather makes a fresh ballot impossible.
The Electoral Complaints Commission published documents listing 210 polling stations where ballots were forged. A US election monitor familiar with the data said the numbers cut Mr Karzai's tally of the vote to around 48 per cent of the vote, dragging him under the threshold needed to win in one round. One group, Democracy International, calculated that around 995,000 of Mr Karzai's original 3.1 million votes had been thrown out.
Attention will now focus on the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which although constitutionally bound to accept the findings, is widely seen as pro-Karzai and understood to have been at loggerheads with the ECC over its methodology.
The IEC is playing for time, and initially denied receiving the findings. Now it says it hopes to respond tomorrow. Every delay is precious for Mr Karzai, though, as the window for a run-off is open only until snows start cutting off remote communities in November. Even if he successfully avoids a new vote, his status as an international statesman has been further diminished by the electoral process, which has been widely condemned as riven with corruption that has mostly worked in his favour.
On Sunday, Barack Obama's Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel ratcheted up the pressure on Mr Karzai, using a CNN interview to raise doubts about the current regime's viability ahead of a putative change in US troop numbers. It would be "reckless to make a decision on US troop levels," he said, without knowing "whether, in fact, there's an Afghan partner ready to fill that space that the US troops would create". He added that the election had to provide a "legitimate and credible" government.
Meanwhile, US Senator John Kerry was in Kabul again yesterday to urge the President to accept the results. The French Foreign Minister, Bernard Kouchner, was also in the Afghan capital over the weekend to press for a swift resolution to the standoff.
In Washginton, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she was "encouraged at the direction that the situation is moving" and was "very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days". Reports suggested Mr Karzai has indicated in private meetings with Western officials that he would be open to a run-off but has yet to commit to a timetable.
Mr Karzai, however, has publicly refused to be swayed: he believes foreign interference, not dodgy ballots, has stripped him of victory. "The campaign office of Hamid Karzai criticises the formula ... for dealing with suspect votes," Mohammad Moin Marastyal, a Karzai campaign aide, said yesterday. Politically motivated efforts had brought Mr Karzai's tally below 50 per cent, he added. "Now we are in a deadlock."
A Western official said the fear had been the IEC would reject the fraud investigation "out of hand" but that the body now appeared to be wavering. But Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for presidential contender Abdullah Abdullah, said that Mr Karzai was pressurising the IEC to reject the findings, hampering discussions on a power-sharing agreement. For months Dr Abdullah promised not to cut a deal but began signalling this was an option last week. He will want to negotiate from the stronger position a run-off would secure him.
The UN's top diplomat in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, met with the main candidates yesterday, "reminding them of their responsibility to respect the findings of the ECC and to follow the constitution faithfully," a spokesman said. "We expect the Independent Election Commission to implement those orders and move swiftly to announce a final certified result as required by Afghan electoral law."