Trickle of returns flows to Karzai

Updated:

KABUL — Preliminary results in Afghanistan’s presidential elections were released Tuesday, but the figures are likely to raise many more questions than they answer.

Based on only 10 percent of the vote, incumbent President Hamed Karzai comes out with a narrow lead over his chief rival, former Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Within the limited votes counted, Karzai does not produce the margin of 50 percent-plus-one necessary to avoid a runoff vote between the two leading candidates.

Nothing is official yet, nor likely to be for several weeks as more ballots are counted across a country with a population that lives predominantly in remote villages and as mounting claims of fraud are investigated. But the early and incomplete results seem to suggest a close race even if most observers are predicting the election will ultimately end in a clear victory for Karzai.

Out of slightly more than 550,000 total votes, or about 10 percent of the turnout, Karzai received 212,927, to Abdullah’s 202,889. Third in line came Ramazan Bashar Dost, the loose-cannon populist reformer who energized the campaign with his calls for invading Iran. He received just over 50,000 votes.

Former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai was a distant fourth, with slightly more than 15,000 votes, and the rest of the 35-member field split the rest.

(Here's how one provincial governor spent a harrowing election day)

The Independent Election Commission is dispensing its data with agonizing slowness. They will hold a press conference every day until Sept. 3, the deadline for preliminary results, giving updates on the progress of the count.

“They are afraid,” said Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi, a journalist in Kabul. “They want to do this very slowly.”

These numbers will then be subject to vetting from the Electoral Complaints Commission, which has the task of investigating allegations of fraud and irregularities. No results will be official until at least mid-September. The chairman of the ECC, Grant Kippen has already warned that the Sept. 17 deadline may be highly unrealistic. An initial wave of complaints has grown into a tsunami, threatening to overwhelm the election process: more than 700 have been received so far, and the ECC has said publicly that at least 50 of those are serious enough to skew the final results.

The allegations range from voter intimidation to outright ballot-box stuffing, with the majority of the accusations leveled at Karzai’s campaign teams. Inflated voter turnout figures for the south and southeast have also raised suspicion.

While electoral commission chairman Daoud Ali Najafi warned sternly at Tuesday’s press conference that only the IEC had the authority to announce results, the media has been having a field day predicting a huge landslide for Karzai. A fairly stable figure of 72 percent for the president has been liberally bandied about, giving Abdullah a mere 26 percent of the final total.

“There will be no second round of voting,” an Afghan government insider predicted confidently. “The deal has been done. Karzai will get his first-round victory, and Abdullah will accept it.”

U.S. Special Envoy Richard Holbrooke has been in the region, meeting with the principals. Abdullah’s supporter, Balkh Governor Atta Mohammad Noor, told the media that Holbrooke had been trying to pressure Abdullah into conceding defeat. The U.S. Embassy, while confirming that Holbrooke had held a series of meetings, would not speculate on the topic of discussion.

No one had expected that the elections would go off without a hitch, but the scale of the alleged fraud has surprised even veteran Afghan hands. In the run-up to last Thursday’s vote, international election experts warned that it might be difficult to control the vote.

“If there is organized fraud in place, local officials might get a bit overenthusiastic,” he said, speaking off the record. “No one wants to under-deliver.”

The international community has been split on the elections, with prominent figures such as UN Special Representative Kai Eide rushing to embrace the vote, while others have been energetically, but quietly, criticizing the process.

“We cannot let (Karzai) get away with this,” said one high-ranking European Union official, speaking privately. “If we do accept it, it is all over. There will be no legitimate government in Afghanistan.”

“What elections?” snorted one young man from Nahr-e-Saraj district of Helmand province. “There was no vote. Just officials stuffing ballot boxes.”

The balance of power is very likely to shift as new results come out. The base of Karzai’s support is said to come from the south, which is the most volatile area of the country. It is in provinces such as Helmand, Kandahar, Uruzgan. Zabul, Wardak, Ghazni, Farah and Nimroz that Karzai will receive the bulk of his votes.

These provinces were almost non-existent in Tuesday’s roll — leaving plenty of room for Karzai to forge ahead in the coming days.

Given the lack of security in these areas, the major portion of the alleged fraud is likely to come from the south as well. In districts of Helmand, for example, where observers recorded a few dozen voters, ballot boxes stuffed with hundreds, even thousands of votes, were received. In Kandahar, whose provincial government is dominated by Karzai’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, the results have been even more startling. Areas where a few thousand votes at most were expected have reported tens of thousands of ballots, overwhelmingly for Karzai.

It will be difficult to trace or prove fraud in a country where there are no voter rolls, no birth certificates and no valid census. No one has an accurate count of just how many voters there actually are.

Observers speculate that the IEC is releasing the results in a trickle to cut down on the possibility of violence in the weeks ahead. Abdullah’s campaign manager and some of his supporters have warned that they will not accept the results if they appear to have been falsified. While candidates, diplomats, and government officials have called for restraint, the atmosphere in Kabul these days is distinctly tense.