Sep 8, 2009

Karzai's Election Fraud Jeapodizes's US Credibility & Mission

Evidence Of Ballot Fraud For Karzai Forces U.S. Into Action

By Matthew Rosenberg, Anand Gopal
Wall Street Journal
September 8, 2009

KABUL -- Evidence of electoral fraud on behalf of incumbent Afghan President Hamid Karzai has become so overwhelming, some U.S. and Western officials say, that they are scrambling to avoid a potential political crisis if he claims victory.
Afghanistan's election commission decided Monday that it will release a complete preliminary tally from the Aug. 20 presidential election, including votes tainted by fraud charges but not disqualified, a commission official said. Western officials now say they believe almost one of every six of Afghanistan's more than 25,000 polling stations is tainted by fraud, most of it on behalf of Mr. Karzai.

Including those votes, the preliminary tally is expected to show Mr. Karzai with more than 50% of the vote -- enough to avoid a runoff election, Afghan and Western officials say.

U.S. Ambassador Karl Eikenberry met Monday evening with Mr. Karzai and encouraged the president not to claim victory based on those results, said a U.S. official, while the U.S. also is pressing Afghan election officials to disqualify tainted votes before announcing a tally.

"The United States and the international community are looking to the Independent Electoral Commission to carry out its legal mandate to count all votes and to exclude all fraudulent votes," said Caitlin Hayden, a U.S. embassy spokeswoman in Kabul. "Anything less than rigorous vetting would call into question the credibility of the announced results."

If Afghan election officials don't change course, the U.S. wants Mr. Karzai to wait on United Nations-sponsored election-fraud investigators to examine the claims and certify the results, a process likely to take weeks, the official said. In that case, the U.S. -- concerned about the legitimacy of the election and the government -- could be largely dependent on the election investigators to declare enough fraud that Mr. Karzai is required to compete in a runoff to avoid widespread unrest.

The U.S. official who described the meeting with Mr. Karzai couldn't say how he reacted to the U.S. message. Karzai officials declined to discuss the meeting.

Since the election, the U.S. and its allies have walked a thin line between monitoring the daily count and any appearance of influencing the outcome. But as it has become apparent to U.S. officials that rampant allegations of electoral fraud were credible, the balancing act has become all the more difficult.
Afghan and Western officials fear the president will declare victory while the top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, and other contenders reject the preliminary results.

A runoff election, slated for early October, would extricate the West from the current mess, but would also raise the prospect of trying to fix all the electoral problems seen in the first round, including hundreds of small attacks on polling places by the Taliban.

Another scenario U.S. officials are watching for is a potential power-sharing deal between Mr. Karzai and Dr. Abdullah. The two men aren't seen as very far apart ideologically, and a partnership could bring legitimacy to a new government. "Abdullah is perfectly capable of making a deal with Karzai," said another U.S. official. "One could wish things to happen this way."

While some fraudulent votes appear to have been cast for Dr. Abdullah and other opposition candidates, fraud committed in Mr. Karzai's favor appeared to run from ballot-stuffing to recording hundreds of thousands of votes at 500 to 800 fictitious polling sites that never opened, say Western and Afghan officials.

At many polling stations in the south and east, where Mr. Karzai is strongest, returns have been suspicious: neatly rounded figures like 500, 400 or 250, or tallies with "multiples more votes than people who voted," said a senior Western diplomat in Kabul.

Afghan election officials in the past day have removed some suspicious results posted on their Web site, including from two polling centers in which Mr. Karzai received all the votes cast. The commission said it also had excluded the results from 447 polling stations, many of which reported more votes than they had ballots.

According to results released Sunday, Mr. Karzai has 48.6% of the votes tallied so far.

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