Evidence of fraud could force Afghan runoff election

KABUL, Afghanistan -- An Afghan member of the panel investigating the widespread allegations of fraud in Afghanistan's August 20 presidential election resigned Monday and charged that United Nations officials have interfered in the probe, a possible indication that Afghan Pres. Hamid Karzai may be forced into a runoff against his former foreign minister.

Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai, who was appointed to the panel by Afghanistan's Supreme Court, which is comprised largely of Karzai loyalists, told McClatchy that he resigned out of frustration with what he called "foreign interference" by U.N. officials in the effort to determine how many questionable votes should be tossed out.

The results of the review are expected to be announced later this week.

The election has become a major challenge for the Obama administration, which needs to convince a skeptical Congress and American public to continue waging the costly eight-year war to prevent the Taliban-led insurgency from regaining control of Afghanistan.

If enough questionable votes are discounted, Karzai's final tally could slip to 50 percent or below, forcing him into a runoff against his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister who has strong support among ethnic minorities in northern Afghanistan.

Sarwar Jawadi, a parliament member who supports Abdullah, said that Barakzai's decision to quit was a sign that the review hasn't gone Karzai's way.

"When the final results are announced, they will not be to the liking of the incumbent," Jawadi said.

A Karzai campaign official, however, said he expects that the president will still win a first round victory unless there's been undue interference.

"We will make 50 percent plus one (vote) even when they take out suspicious votes. We are very confident of that," said Arsala Jamal, the Karzai campaign official. "The only thing that would change is if there is political pressure."

He didn't elaborate, but his comment appeared aimed at the United States and seemed to imply that Karzai might use such a charge to reject a runoff and claim a second five-year term. That could trigger a serious political crisis in the midst of the Obama administration's deliberations on a strategy to contain the Taliban-led insurgency.

Barakzai's resignation is the latest twist in the torturous process to choose a new Afghan president, which election observers, other experts and Abdullah charge was marred by massive ballot box-stuffing and other fraud, mostly on Karzai's behalf.

The election results also ignited a public schism within the U.N. mission to Afghanistan, with Peter Galbraith, the highest-ranking American, being fired after he alleged that his boss, Kai Eide, withheld evidence of vote rigging on Karzai's behalf.

On Sunday, Eide acknowledged that the election had been "a difficult process, marred by so many problems, not least . . . by widespread fraud."

However, he denied Galbraith's charges that he'd tried to cover up evidence of malfeasance on Karzai's behalf that U.N. officials had collected during the voting.

Reach by telephone in Europe on Monday, Galbraith said that Eide's confirmation of fraud and Barakzai's resignation suggested that the Election Complaints Commission was preparing to call a runoff.

"Kai's long overdue recognition that there was widespread fraud, along with the resignation of an ECC member identified with Karzai, is an indication that the ECC appears likely to find that Karzai's true vote total is below 50 percent and there will be a runoff," said Galbraith.

He expressed concern that Karzai could claim "foreign interference" in rejecting a second round.

Barackzai's charge, "Potentially sets the stage for Karzai to reject the call for a runoff," said Galbraith.

(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times.)


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