Afghanistan edged closer to a long-awaited resolution to August’s presidential vote as election workers started recounting suspect ballots and an official said a ruling on whether President Hamid Karzai won or will face a runoff is likely next week.

The August 20 election was hampered by violence and allegations of vote-rigging that have since plunged the country into an electoral crisis while Taliban militants are expanding from their southern strongholds into the north and west.

Preliminary results released in September showed Mr. Karzai won the voting with 54.6 per cent, enough to avoid a runoff with second-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah, his former Foreign Minister. But the recount and audit ordered by a U.N.-backed fraud panel could cut Mr. Karzai’s votes below the 50 per cent threshold needed to win outright.

About 13 per cent of the country’s approximately 26,300 polling stations are considered questionable by the fraud panel because they had more than 100 per cent turnout or more than 95 per cent of votes for one candidate.

A sampling of 358 ballot boxes is being examined as a way to speed the investigative process. Counting all 3,498 suspect boxes could take months, potentially delaying a verdict on the vote until spring, which some fear would create a power vacuum at a critical time when attacks by a resurgent Taliban are growing. Winter snows that typically start in November make much of the country impassable for months.

Election workers started opening and investigating boxes on Monday, though they still have to wait for 84 of the boxes to arrive in the capital, according to the Deputy Director of the election commission, Zekria Barakzai.

If fraud is found in any of the 358 boxes, those votes will be thrown out, according to the election commission. Those results will then be used to decide what percentage of votes to void for each candidate in the 3,498 suspect polling stations.

The Deputy Director said the count should take about three days to complete and that the commission would be able to announce final results “by the end of next week.”

If a runoff is required, the official said it must be held within two to three weeks of the announcement of the results.

The fraud panel is also conducting separate investigations into specific allegations of fraud and has already voided ballots from dozens of polling stations in those examinations.

The former No. 2 official at the U.N. mission in Afghanistan, Peter Galbraith, said on Monday the United Nations “did not exercise its responsibility” in combating fraud.

Mr. Galbraith told ABC television that problems with the vote were preventable and accused the U.N. of not doing enough. Mr. Galbraith was fired from his post after an argument with his boss over how to handle fraud investigations.

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