Charges of fraud in Afghanistan’s presidential election are extensive enough that they could sway the final result, the commission investigating the complaints said on Sunday.
The independent Electoral Complaints Commission has received 225 complaints since polls opened Thursday, including 35 allegations that are “material to the election results,” said Grant Kippen, the head of the U.N.-backed body. The figures include complaints about both the presidential balloting and provincial council polls.
Millions of Afghans voted in the country’s second-ever direct presidential election, although Taliban threats and attacks appeared to hold down the turnout, especially in the south.
President Hamid Karzai’s top challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, accused the president of rigging the vote in an interview with The Associated Press on Saturday. Another presidential candidate has displayed mangled ballots that he said were cast for him and then thrown out by election workers.
Election observers have said the voting process was mostly credible, but are cataloging instances of fraud and violence.
The most common complaint in the 35 high-priority allegations was ballot box tampering, Kippen said. He stressed that the number was likely to grow. The commission has only received complaints filed at provincial capitals and Kabul so far and is still waiting for complaints that were filed at polling sites.
The top Afghan monitoring group has said there were widespread problems with supposedly independent election officials at polling stations trying to influence the way people voted. That group, the Free and Fair Elections Foundation of Afghanistan, also catalogued violations such as people using multiple voter cards so they could vote more than once, and underage voting.
The U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan said allegations of vote rigging and fraud are to be expected, but observers should wait for the official complaints process to run its course before judging the vote’s legitimacy.
“We have disputed elections in the United States. There may be some questions here. That wouldn’t surprise me at all. I expect it,” Richard Holbrooke told AP Television News in the western city of Herat. “But let’s not get out ahead of the situation.”
Holbrooke said the U.S. government would wait for rulings from Afghanistan’s monitoring bodies - the Independent Election Commission and the Electoral Complaints Commission - before trying to judge the legitimacy of the vote.
“The United States and the international community will respect the process set up by Afghanistan itself,” Holbrooke said. He has been in Afghanistan observing the vote, following a trip to Pakistan last week.
The first preliminary results will not be released until Tuesday, and final certified results won’t come until next month. If neither Karzai nor Abdullah gets 50 percent of the vote among a field of some three dozen candidates, then they will go to a runoff, probably in October.
In the interview Saturday, Abdullah said he was in contact with other campaigns to explore the possibility of a coalition candidacy in case none of the 36 candidates won enough votes to avoid a runoff.
The accusations of fraud against Karzai, which Karzai’s spokesman denied, are the most direct Abdullah has made against the incumbent in a contest that likely has weeks to go before a winner is proclaimed. Both Abdullah and Karzai claim they are in the lead based on reports from campaign poll-watchers monitoring the count.
“He uses the state apparatus in order to rig an election,” Abdullah said. “That is something which is not expected.”
Abdullah said it “doesn’t make the slightest difference” whether Karzai or his supporters ordered the alleged fraud.
“All this happens under his eyes and under his leadership,” Abdullah said. “This is under his leadership that all these things are happening, and all those people who are responsible for this fraud in parts of the country are appointed by him.”
Abdullah said government officials in Kandahar and Ghazni provinces, including a provincial police chief and a No. 2 provincial election official, stuffed ballot box in Karzai’s favor in six districts. He also said his monitors were prevented from entering several voting sites.
Karzai’s campaign spokesman Waheed Omar dismissed Abdullah’s allegations and claimed the president’s camp had submitted reports of fraud allegedly committed by Abdullah’s followers to the Electoral Complaint Commission. Omar said losing candidates often claim fraud to “try to justify their loss.”