KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's leading election watchdog expressed deepening alarm Sunday at reports it was amassing of vote-rigging and bloodshed that claimed at least two dozen lives in the nation's second legislative election since the 2001 U.S. invasion.
With elections officials beginning the laborious process of certifying votes in the closely watched races, independent observers raised new warnings about the scale of fraud, intimidation and unrest that could undermine the credibility of the new Parliament.
"We are more concerned because we are collecting more information," said Nader Nadery, head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation, a coalition of civic groups that fielded some 7,000 observers during Saturday's elections to the 249-seat lower house of Parliament.
Nadery, whose organization alleged extensive ballot-stuffing and security problems almost immediately after the polls closed Saturday, declined to elaborate on the new data that the group is reviewing until a news conference set for Monday.
"I'm encouraged by the turnout compared to what was expected," Nadery added, referring to the official initial estimate of 4 million. About 6 million voters turned out in last year's fraud-marred presidential election, which secured a second four-year term for President Hamid Karzai.
Hamid Obaidi, a spokesman for the Electoral Complaints Commission, the body charged with adjudicating vote-rigging allegations, said complaints are running at "the same" level as they were in the presidential election. He declined to elaborate, saying the figure would be released on Monday.
Karzai and his U.S.-led allies have portrayed the elections as a success, hailing the voters who defied threats by the Taliban and allied extremist groups.
The Karzai government and the Obama administration, which has sent some 50,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan since taking office in 2009, saw the elections as a chance to reclaim some of the legitimacy they lost in the massive fraud that scarred Karzai's re-election.
"The people of Afghanistan have shown courage and participated in this election and made it a success," declared Fazil Ahmad Manawi, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission. "We do accept shortfalls in the process. In a country like Afghanistan, we should not expect miracles."
The U.S. and its NATO allies appeared to be anxious to show progress in Afghanistan in the face of growing opposition among Americans to the increasingly costly war, said Thomas Ruttig of the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network. President Barack Obama plans to begin drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next July.
"I find that a little bit optimistic and driven by the domestic agenda and not by the reality in Afghanistan," Ruttig said. "I think the institutions in Afghanistan generally are too weak and I don't see a step forward in democratization."
Serious problems existed going into the vote. They included sales of fake voter cards printed in Pakistan, intimidation by local power barons and the absence of a national voter list. There were some 17 million registered voters, but an estimated 5 million were thought to be holding fake cards.
At least 24 civilians were killed and 46 injured in 93 attacks by insurgents on polling stations around the country, Manawi said. Three election workers also were abducted and killed, and 13 others wounded, he said.
Manawi's count of 93 attacks contrasted sharply with a Free and Fair Election Foundation report of significant security incidents at nearly 400 polling centers.
Some analysts warned that Karzai and the U.S. risked a further loss of credibility by casting the election as a success before the full extent of the vote-rigging has been determined, a process that's expected to delay the seating of the new Parliament for weeks or perhaps months.
"What is important to remember is that this really was 34 separate elections and fraud would therefore be organized at a provincial rather than a presidential level," said an international monitor who requested anonymity because his group is still reviewing its findings. "Therefore, it's more difficult to detect broad patterns until complete information is available."
Analysts noted that the official initial turnout estimate was nearly 2 million below the number certified in Karzai's re-election, continuing a trend of diminishing attendance that began with the 2004 presidential contest. The turnout figure will almost certainly drop as the complaints commission weeds out fraudulent ballots.
International monitoring missions, whose presence was significantly smaller than it was last year due to the expanding Taliban-led insurgency, withheld judgment, apparently determined to avoid making the premature declarations of success that some issued after the presidential vote.
New evidence of fraud emerged in the Taliban's southern stronghold of Kandahar Province, the focus of a U.S.-led drive to extinguish the insurgency and prevent Afghanistan from reverting to a sanctuary for al Qaida.
In the dusty hamlet of Nasajee, a 20-minute drive from Kandahar city, just off the main road to Kabul, 901 votes were cast in a polling station reserved for women in a private house.
By contrast, few or no votes were recorded in polling stations elsewhere in rural Kandahar, where the conservative culture prohibits women from leaving their walled compounds unless accompanied by a close male relative.
The winning candidate from Nasajee was Amir Lalai, an ally of the regional power broker, Ahmed Wali Karzai, the Afghan president's younger half brother.
When a McClatchy correspondent visited Nasajee on Saturday at around noon, 335 men and 318 women had voted. By the end of the day, the men's vote had risen to 391, while the women's tally had almost tripled to 901.
"It's impossible that 900 women in this area voted," said Abdul Razzak, the principal of Nasajee High School. "This area is not safe. We are surrounded by insurgents. Women don't venture out. Where did they get 900 women?"
Senior election officials, who asked not to be named because they weren't authorized to speak to a reporter, said the women's polling center's location hadn't been authorized and was illegal.
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent. Dion Nissenbaum and special correspondents Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article from Kabul, and special correspondent Muhib Habibi contributed from Kandahar.)
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