Rival claims of victory stoke tensions after Afghan vote

Plea to wait for official election result ignored by President Karzai and his chief challenger Abdullah

It did not take long for the victory claims to come in Afghanistan. Yesterday, less than 24 hours after the polls had closed, both President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger Abdullah Abdullah were saying they had won outright and that a potentially destabilising run-off would not be necessary.

With accusations of electoral fraud swirling about the capital, United Nations and US officials warned the rival camps to keep a lid on simmering tensions and stressed that only Afghanistan's electoral authorities could provide a definitive count.

"We've seen the reports, but only the Independent Election Commission is in a position to announce official results. We'll be waiting to hear from them. Anything else is just speculation," the US embassy spokeswoman Fleur Cowan said.

Zekria Barakzai, the deputy head of the electoral board, said that preliminary figures showed the turnout for Thursday's poll had dropped to around 40-50 per cent, compared with the 70 per cent recorded at the first presidential election in 2004. But he declined to comment on the process of counting and tallying the votes. "We cannot confirm any claims by campaign managers. They should be patient," Mr Barakzai said.

It was a plea that fell on deaf ears. "Initial results show that the President has got a majority," declared Deen Mohammed, the campaign manager for Mr Karzai, saying this proclamation was based on reports from nearly 29,000 monitors at polling stations throughout the country. "We will not get to a second round."

But this was immediately countered by the rival camp. Its spokesman, Fazl Sangcharaki, said: "What they are saying isn't true. We think Abdullah has won." He insisted that the north had voted solidly for Mr Abdullah, except for Jowzjan province, the home of Uzbek militia commander Abdul Rashid Dostum, who returned to the country days before the vote to campaign for Mr Karzai.

Mr Abdullah told Reuters: "I'm ahead. Initial results from the provinces show that I have more than 50 per cent of the vote."

In the run-up to Thursday's ballot, which went ahead despite threats from the Taliban to amputate the fingers of any Afghan who voted, the opinion polls had given Mr Karzai, a lead of almost 20 percentage points but, crucially, shy of the 50-plus per cent of the vote needed to avoid a second round.

If necessary, a run-off ballot would be held in October. But, with accusations flying of ballot-stuffing and ghost voters, the concern is that tensions might boil over in the intervening weeks and that the Taliban might renew their vow to disrupt the electoral process with a more deadly effect the second time around.

The other worry is that a second round between Mr Karzai – an ethnic Pashtun with a strong base in the south – and Mr Abdullah – a former foreign minister who draws support from the Tajiks in the north – could split the country along ethnic lines, and violence might follow.

"We always knew it would be a disputed election," Richard Holbrooke, the US envoy to the region, told reporters in Kabul. "I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days."

In Washington yesterday, Barack Obama, who has sent thousands of extra troops to Afghanistan, said the country's election was a move in the right direction but warned that, while the results are being finalised, there could be more violence. "This was an important step forward in the Afghan people's effort to take control of their future even as violent extremists are trying to stand in their way," Mr Obama said. "Over the last few days, particularly yesterday, we've seen acts of violence and intimidation by the Taliban, and there ... may be more in the days to come."

An estimated 30 people were killed on polling day, including 11 election officials, according to the Afghan authorities. On the streets there was general relief that that the carnage some feared would accompany the voting had not materialised, but there was also apprehension that a prolonged second-round campaign would usher in a new period of turbulence and strife.

In Nad-e-Ali in Helmand Province, Rahimtullah Ali, 44, said: "I was very uneasy about the threats made by the Taliban but I voted, and I voted for Mr Karzai. No one else in my family voted and they were worried about me. They will be more worried if I have to vote a second time so soon."

In Kabul, Akhbar Agha, a supporter of the opposition candidate, Mr Abdullah, said his countrymen needed to show tenacity. "We must follow this thing through," he said. "If Karzai now announces himself president again there will be a lot of trouble because people simply will not believe him."

The contenders: What the outcome will mean for Afghanistan

Abdullah Abdullah, the man who could scuttle Hamid Karzai's hopes of another five years in power, was born in Kandahar, the spiritual home of the Taliban, but spent his formative adult years in combat with the Islamic militants.

He fought on behalf of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance and also served as a close adviser to its charismatic leader, Ahmed Shah Masood.

Mr Abdullah, who has a medical degree from Kabul University and worked as an ophthalmologist until 1985, was appointed Foreign Minister under Mr Karzai's interim government, and held the position until he was abruptly sacked in 2006.

During the campaign, the 48-year-old opposition candidate, who is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik origins, has been at pains to stress the Pashtun part of his heritage, conscious of the fact that Pashtuns make up 42 per cent of the Afghan population. However, his history with the Northern Alliance makes it virtually impossible for him to be accepted in large swathes of the south, and there are fears that his election might force a schism.

Western powers are said to have been in favour of a deal between Mr Karzai and another candidate, Ashraf Ghani, a technocrat and former World Bank employee, who might help to bring the increasingly wayward Karzai administration into line while keeping the Pashtuns in the fold and depriving the Taliban of new disgruntled recruits.

If Mr Abdullah does manage to defeat his old boss at the ballot box, analysts predict that there will be much less talk of any rapprochement with the Taliban. The man who was deeply involved in helping the US to topple the Taliban after the 11 September attacks inherently distrusts the group, and doesn't buy the fact that some of the more moderate elements might be interested in changing their ways.

Perhaps as a swipe at Mr Karzai, who has been roundly criticised for cutting backroom deals with warlords and doling out positions of power as rewards for support, Mr Abdullah has pledged to establish the post of Prime Minister and is pushing for governors and mayors to be elected rather than appointed.

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