Major fraud finding adds to pressure on Karzai

KABUL, Afghanistan — President Hamid Karzai was under intense pressure Monday at home and abroad to accept a run off as a U.N.-backed body released findings that documented widespread fraud in the first round of Afghanistan's presidential elections.

The findings contain data that, once added to the existing figures, will almost certainly show that Karzai failed to gain enough valid votes for an outright win, which under Afghan law would necessitate a runoff.

The Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) released its first official findings Monday on the fraud alleged to have taken place during the poll. But while the various statements issued by the U.N.-backed commission make it clear that the fraud was widespread and significant, they did not offer any concrete numbers or percentages, much less a hint as to how the present stalemate will ultimately be resolved. 

However, Democracy International, an election support organization that ran an observer mission to Afghanistan for the August elections, was not so reticent.

Within an hour of the ECC’s statement, it issued a numbers-crunching memorandum predicting that Karzai’s results would now total just over 48 percent. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, his main rival, would receive slightly above 31 percent. The law is clear: According to the Afghan Constitution, if no candidate receives more than 50 percent of the vote a runoff must be held between the top two vote-getters. 

Over the past several days, the international community — including several high-profile U.S. delegations — has been conducting a frantic round of talks with Karzai and his team, trying to broker a deal, apply pressure and otherwise avoid a looming crisis. 

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton made a telephone call. U.S. Senator John F. Kerry came to Kabul in person, as did French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. Former U.S. Ambassador to Kabul Zalmay Khalilzad also arrived to offer his services. 

The ECC’s findings have now been officially communicated to the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC), which will have the final responsibility for issuing certified results. 

“The Electoral Law clearly defines our authority: ECC decisions are final and binding, and the IEC may not certify the election results until they fulfill the conditions of our decisions,” said Scott Worden, one of five ECC commissioners. 

But according to numerous inside sources, both the IEC and Karzai are resisting the ECC’s findings and the subsequent runoff vote. 

Asked what would happen if the IEC simply refused to accept the decision, one election official just shrugged. 

“It’s a good question,” said the official. “But it’s anybody’s guess.”

Hundreds of ballot boxes were examined in a random sampling selected from a total of 3,498 “suspicious” polling stations. In all, 358 polling stations were included in the sample, out of which 210 were found to have clear and convincing evidence of fraud. 

It did not take a specialist to identify some of the irregularities, which ranged from hundreds of ballots marked with identical symbols in red felt-tipped pens, to others where none of the 600 ballots at the station had ever been folded, making it impossible for them to fit through the slot in the ballot box. 

According to Democracy International, over 1.2 million votes were invalidated, the overwhelming majority of them — more than 950,000 — for Karzai. These votes were subtracted from the overall tally of 5.6 million votes, giving a total turnout of just over 4.3 million, or approximately 30 percent of the estimated voter pool. 

“Now all eyes are on the IEC,” said one election observer, speaking privately. 

According to sources close to the IEC, the complaints commission communicated its decision to the IEC unofficially as early as last Thursday. The IEC promptly announced, again unofficially, that it would not accept any findings that would necessitate a second round of voting. 

But by Monday evening no decision had been made. 

“The IEC will need at least 24 hours to factor in all the parts and determine the new results accordingly,” said Nellika Little, spokesperson for the ECC. 

But it could take a great deal longer that that if Karzai cannot be cajoled or bullied into accepting the decision of the electoral bodies. At that point, the president and the international community will be on a collision course. 

President Barack Obama is now pondering a troop increase; both Kerry and the president’s chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, have advised putting off a decision until a legitimate government is in place in Kabul. 

But it will be very difficult to determine legitimacy if Karzai continues to defy the law.

The Afghan president has been trying for the past two years to shake his image as a puppet of the United States. His present intransigence has been accompanied by dark mutterings about “foreign meddling” in Afghan affairs. 

Last week one of the ECC commissioners, Maulawi Mustafa Barakzai, abruptly quit his post, alleging that the rest of the commission was not impartial and was engaging in back-room deals. In some interviews Barakzai, who was appointed to the ECC by Afghanistan’s Supreme Court and is a specialist in Sharia Law, hinted that the ECC was “un-Islamic.” 

Karzai refused to accept Barakzai’s resignation, which mystified many observers. 

“Karzai did not appoint him, and it is not up to Karzai to accept his resignation,” said one international election expert. “Of course, we have not been too scrupulous about adhering to the law so far.” 

Several possible scenarios for resolving the present impasse have been discussed, mostly in the media and in behind-the-scenes negotiations, usually with the aid of one or several high-ranking foreign diplomats. 

A runoff, while almost certain to be necessary, may be logistically impossible. Afghanistan’s harsh winter is about to set in, and a large portion of the northern part of the country — Abdullah’s power base — would be disenfranchised by the weather. The south, where Karzai is strong, would be equally disenfranchised by mounting insecurity and the growing anger of those voters who risked their lived to cast their ballots in August. 

Some have advocated holding a Grand Council, or Loya Jirga, to determine the winner of the elections. This has some procedural difficulties, but could give a patina of legitimacy to the final results while avoiding a prolonged power vacuum. 

Still others are advocating an interim government to take care of business until a runoff can be held in the spring. 

Most likely, say those close to the process, is some sort of power-sharing arrangement between Karzai and Abdullah. 

But however the matter is ultimately resolved, the damage to Karzai’s reputation among the international community is likely to be severe, and lasting. 

“Karzai is committing political suicide,” said Ahmad Sayeedi, a political analyst who was close to both campaigns. “We are totally dependent on the international community; this is not the time to defy them.”