Afghanistan was plunged into crisis over its disputed elections yesterday, with Hamid Karzai passing the 50 per cent threshold to make him outright winner but locked in an escalating confrontation with the West over allegations of massive fraud.
To add to the growing chaos, the two monitoring bodies for the election were at loggerheads. A United Nations- backed commission, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), with Western representatives forming a majority, yesterday ordered a recount of ballots because of the alleged voting malpractice. But that demand was challenged by a second, Afghan-dominated body, the Independent Election Commission (IEC), which went on to publish the results, effectively giving Mr Karzai victory.
In proceedings descending into near farce, the chief electoral officer of the IEC claimed the recounting order had been lost in translation. He had, he continued, sent it back to the ECC "because the Persian version of the document did not match the English version". The official, Daoud Ali Najafi, declared at first that the ECC demand contradicted the polling criteria for the election. He later stated that if the order was indeed to carry out recounts, "we will have to do it, but it will take a long time, maybe two or three months".
With almost 92 per cent of the polling sites tallied, Mr Karzai has 54.1 per cent of the vote with his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, far behind on 28.3 per cent. The rest of the votes to be counted are from the Pashtun south, the President's constituency, which should add to his majority.
However ballots from more than 600 polling stations have been quarantined and there have been 720 major charges of fraud which could lead to large numbers of votes being declared invalid. In the event of Mr Karzai being stripped of his majority, a run-off would be necessary with Dr Abdullah. However the delay mentioned by Dr Najafi means this would not be possible until the winter, when much of northern Afghanistan is cut off by snow. In that eventuality, the second round could not take place until next spring.
The polls, presented as defining evidence of Afghanistan's democratic evolution and at the centre of American and British policy in the region, have had an increasingly divisive influence in sectarian terms. In the eyes of many in the country, they have brought the democratic process into disrepute.
While Western diplomats and opposition politicians register their disgust over reports of ballot stuffing, a growing number of Afghans, not all of them Karzai supporters, are resentful of what they consider undue foreign influence over the election.
The US and UK have consistently stressed that these elections, unlike the ones of five years ago, are Afghan- organised – a sign of the progress made in establishing civic society since the war. The ECC comprises an American, a Canadian and a Dutch national – all UN-appointed – and two Afghans selected by a local human rights organisation and the supreme court. Yet it is this body, with foreigners a majority and, by all accounts, dominant in making decisions, which has sweeping powers – nullifying votes it deems to be fraudulent, ordering recounts of votes, or ordering fresh voting.
One Afghan analyst, Waheed Mujhda, said: "There is a view among the Pashtuns in particular that the Americans don't want Karzai and they are trying to delay his victory as long as possible. But a lot of all Afghan people, of all sections of society, are getting annoyed because this is a sovereign nation, but it is foreigners lecturing to us what to do in our election."
The unravelling of the electoral process comes against the backdrop of a relentless war. Yesterday morning, as the ECC was sending its recount order to the IEC, a suicide bomber blew himself up at Nato's security gate at Kabul airport, killing three civilians. While the disputed victory for Mr Karzai was being announced at the city's Intercontinental Hotel, fierce fighting erupted at Kunar, in the east of the country, with four American soldiers killed.
At the press conference, Dr Najafi was repeatedly asked why his organisation had passed as valid ballot returns which showed Mr Karzai winning by "incongruous" margins of 95 per cent and 98 per cent. He responded: "If all the documentation is right then we pass them even if they are 95 per cent. That is usual in Afghanistan."
In an interview with Le Figaro newspaper Mr Karzai said he was "not a puppet of the United States" and attacked the British and American media for "lacking respect" over the electoral process and attempting to "delegitimise" the future government of Afghanistan. There had been fraud in the election, he admitted, but it was not something which could be avoided in a growing democracy.
Today is Ahmed Shah Masoud Day, commemorating the murder of the legendary Tajik Northern Alliance commander by al-Qa'ida eight years ago. Masoud is the beloved hero of the Tajiks and if, as expected, the Tajik candidate Dr Abdullah announces today that he rejects Mr Karzai's claim of victory, his declaration could be accompanied by angry Tajik protests.
Post-election: What happens next?
First scenario Declare Mr Karzai the winner as he has passed the 50 per cent benchmark, certifying the results with only a perfunctory attempt at checking the fraud allegations. Protests from Abdullah and other candidates would follow.
Second scenario A more thorough examination of ballot stuffing claims, with partial reruns if necessary. Mr Karzai will still emerge as the winner in this narrative, and the West can claim that all attempts have been made to establish fairness. Protests from Abdullah and others may ensue anyway.
Third scenario Unsparingly rigorous checks on the fraud, with Mr Karzai stripped of his majority and a second round forced. However, the timescale, with the Afghan winter closing in, may mean this would be impossible until next Spring – and the Pashtun supporters of the President would claim that he had been prevented from returning to power by the US.