Threat to Afghan presidential ballot

A power struggle at the top of Afghanistan's election commission is threatening to sway the outcome of the country's presidential ballot, as officials argue over how many votes to discard because of fraud.

The head of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), who was appointed by President Hamid Karzai, is pressuring his staff to include all the votes, despite widespread evidence of vote rigging. Most of the fraud is in support of Mr Karzai.

But the four people in charge of analysing the tallies and identifyingirregularities are fighting back. The IEC "operations team" insist results from some polling stations are so clearly rigged they should be ruled invalid.

If Azizullah Ludin, the chairman of the IEC, gets his way, most analysts predict Karzai will win the election in the first round. "He wants to publish everything and let the Election Complaints Commission take responsibility for working out which votes werefraudulent," said an official involved in the process.

The complaints commission has the authority to discard dodgy votes, but Afghan and international officials admit it would be politically very difficult for them to change the result.

"If Karzai scrapes through for a first round victory it's hard to see how the complaints commission could cut his lead and force a second round. Especially as the ECC is seen as the international organisation, compared to the IEC which is seen as Afghan," said a senior western diplomat. "It would look like interference."

President Hamid Karzai had a furious row with America's special envoy Richard Holbrooke a day after the elections, when he threw his hat on the table and accused Mr Holbrooke of trying to force a second round "against the interests of Afghanistan".

The international community was quick to hail Afghanistan's election a success, but questions over the poll's credibility have forced Kabul's foreign backers into a Catch 22 situation. "Do they swallow whatever happens and support the winner? Or do they do whatever they need to do behind the scenes to force a second round and hope that it's more credible," said a former American diplomat.

The IEC has delayed making a decision on the "bad votes" as long as possible, by quarantining suspect ballots and excluding them from the published results.

Figures from 60 percent of polling centres published so far show President Karzai has 47 percent, ahead of his former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah on 33. The president needs 50 percent plus one vote to win in the first round.

Most of the remaining votes, some of which should be released today, are from Karzai's heartlands in the south, where allegations of fraud were most abundant.

Tribal leaders from Shorabak in Kandahar claimed the president's agents forged 23,900 votes in one district alone. District governor Delaga Bariz said the president's brother Ahmed Wali Karzai arrested him on polling day and closed the district's 45 polling centres. The ballot boxes were taken to Shorabak's district headquarters, where, Mr. Bariz and other tribal leaders said, local police officers stuffedthem with thousands of ballots.

Insecurity in places like Kandahar and Helmand stopped election observers from visiting all but a handful of polling sites, mostly inside the cities. But mechanisms inside the IEC are designed to spot irregularities in the figures.

Nonetheless, IEC figures for at least two polling centres in Kandahar show some unusual results have slipped through. At Wali Mohammed Khan's house in Torzai, in Kandahar, President Karzai won 100 percent of the 4049 votes. Four of the eight polling stations at Mr Khan's house collected exactly 500 votes.

Even more unusually, at the Central Mosque in Sayed Bosa where Mr Karzai also claimed 100 percent, the eight polling stations collected precisely 500, 510, 515 or 520 votes to reach a neat total of 4085.

"The foreigners say they are here to support democracy and human rights and civil society," said author Ahmad Saeedi. "But there have been more than 2000 allegations of fraud. If the election is stolen it will look like the international community doesn't believe in democracy."

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