By Jason Motlagh
The frantic run-up to Afghanistan's presidential election has given way to a bitter anti-climax. Even as results trickle in, they are in danger of being overwhelmed by mounting claims of fraud from the leading candidates, who appear to be increasingly unlikely to back down should the final verdict not go their way.
In the second installment of results, announced on Wednesday, President Hamid Karzai extended his lead over his top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. After a dead heat the first day, he now stands at nearly 45% of the vote vs. 35% for Abdullah. Eager as Afghans and media outlets are for fresh information, the figures still reflect only 17% of the more than 27,000 polling sites nationwide. Moreover, they were drawn from less than half of the country's 34 provinces. As a result, even as some observers posit a Karzai victory, it's still hard to gauge where the candidates actually stand — and the extent of the impact of the Taliban's pre-election campaign of intimidation.
Returns will continue to be announced piecemeal in the coming days. Based on the recent pattern, so too will accusations of foul play. Abdullah, who leveled charges of systematic fraud and other irregularities at Karzai supporters the day after the vote, has since escalated his case. At a Tuesday press conference in the courtyard of his Kabul residence, he showed videos and materials that he said proved that Karzai tried to "steal the verdict of the nation."
One video, allegedly shot in Ghazni province, showed a man stuffing a ballot box. Another featured a child at a table marking ballots for the same candidate. Additional footage appeared to show Karzai campaign officials looking over the shoulders of voters as well as a polling station that apparently remained open two days after election day. Abdullah warned that if such evidence is ignored, "this is the type of regime that will be imposed on Afghanistan for the next five years. With that sort of system — with a system which has destroyed every institution, broken every law — Afghanistan cannot succeed."
The Karzai camp has issued similar charges, even as the President's campaign manager dismisses the charges by rivals: "If you are in second place, you say anything." However, Abdullah's claims received a shot in the arm on Aug. 25 from six other presidential hopefuls, including former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who alleged that widespread fraud took place on election day, largely to the President's advantage. At least 1,461 complaints have already been lodged with the Electoral Complaints Commission, more than 150 of which involve large numbers of votes and could affect the final outcome. The commission has launched probes that must be completed before final results can be released, a requirement that could take several weeks. In the Taliban stronghold of Helmand province, where some of the worst fraud is said to have taken place, rolling violence means many of the probes are bound to remain unresolved.
There are also those who say the entire tabulation process is inherently flawed. Ramazan Bashardost, the parliamentarian and anti-corruption maverick who ran third in exit polls, says the Electoral Complaints Commission is breaking the law by releasing figures before completing its investigation into alleged vote-rigging. (The head of the commission, Aziz Ludin, said the decision to release preliminary figures is within the letter of the law, adding that it was agreed upon at an internal commission meeting — in part to steer clear of the kind of controversy that marred the 2000 U.S. presidential election.) Bashardost tells TIME that an election official informed him over the phone of being under intense pressure to provide results that favored a particular candidate, whom he will not identify. Ever the skeptic, Bashardost suspects there is a plot to gradually increase one candidate's margin of victory; by stretching it out over an extended period of time, it may dampen the anger of rivals. "It's a preparation," Bashardost says. He contends that the U.S. is playing a role in manipulating the outcome and that Washington is planning to broker a deal among the leading candidates to get the process over with.
U.S. officials, meanwhile, say they are working to avoid the prospect of post-election unrest. Richard Holbrooke, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, has met with Abdullah and Karzai to insist they refrain from claiming victory until results are complete. Yet the longer the process drags on and the barbs fly, analysts say, the greater the space for troublemaking. "It is dangerous for each side to keep supporters [charged up] for the future," says Nasrullah Stanikzai, a politics professor at Kabul University.
Then there are the Afghan voters, some of whom say their patience is wearing thin amid the name-calling. It would be stretched to the limit with a run-off. "This government can do nothing right. Even by cheating, these politicians cannot win," says shopkeeper Siddiq Sadeg. He would not disclose for whom he voted, only saying it was neither Karzai nor Abdullah. And that candidate would remain his choice — if he'd bother to go to the polls again.
This article was reported with help from a grant by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.