Karzai tries to play down vote-rigging allegations

The reputation of democracy in Afghanistan has been severely damaged by the widespread allegations of fraud.

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KABUL // The reputation of democracy in Afghanistan has been severely damaged by the widespread allegations of fraud that continue to overshadow the recent presidential election, legislators have warned. Nearly a month after the election was held, final preliminary results have at last been announced. They show Hamid Karzai, the incumbent, with an outright majority of 54.6 per cent of the vote. His nearest challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, has 27.8 per cent.

However, ongoing investigations into alleged corruption mean there is still no clear winner. European Union observers claim about a quarter of the ballots cast could be fraudulent and partial recounts are now underway. The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) had earlier thrown out votes from three provinces, but MPs representing those areas fear that lasting damage has already been done. "Democracy has not been successful in Afghanistan because people are losing their rights," said Shakiba Hashimi, who occupies a seat for Kandahar in the lower house of parliament.

Since the vote was held on August 20 it has been plagued by accusations of widespread cheating that have become a headache for the international community and yet another reason to despair for ordinary Afghans. The EU's claim that about 1.5 million votes could be fraudulent provoked an angry response from Mr Karzai's campaign team, which described it as "irresponsible". Meanwhile, the deputy of the UN's mission to Afghanistan has left the country after a disagreement with his superior over what should be done regarding the alleged fixing.

The final result now hinges on a recount of about 10 per cent of polling stations that was ordered by the ECC, which previously threw out votes in Kandahar, Ghazni and Paktika. Ms Hashimi claims that in her province local allies of Mr Karzai, including his brother Ahmed Wali, were involved in intimidation and ballot stuffing. If the president is eventually declared the winner, she believes the consequences will be devastating.

"Security will get worse not just in one area, but in all of Afghanistan," she said. Mr Karzai was the clear favourite, but a strong campaign by Mr Abdullah, his former foreign minister, appeared to threaten his chances of getting the majority vote he would need to avoid a runoff. If a second round is eventually required, there are doubts about when it can be held. At a press conference yesterday, Mr Karzai tried to play down the growing controversy, insisting problems had "not been to the extent which the media speak of".

Mr Karzai said that "there were some government officials who were partial toward me" - the first public acknowledgement of fraud by him or his supporters - but charged other officials had manipulated results to favour Mr Abdullah. "I believe firmly in the integrity of the election, in the integrity of the Afghan people and in the integrity of the government in that process," Mr Karzai said. Shahgul Rezaie, an MP for Ghazni, said she was happy that suspicious votes had been cancelled in her province. "Democracy is a new thing in Afghanistan so it's necessary that people should believe in the election process. If we don't consider the corruption or the cheating it means the people will lose their belief," she said.

However, Ms Rezaie also fears that some of the damage done may be beyond repair. "It's not important if Karzai cheated or if it was other candidates. The problem is that they destroyed democracy here. They are not respecting people's votes," she said. Although most of the debate arising from the election has surrounded the incumbent, his team is not alone in being accused of fraud. The EU has said 1.1m of the suspicious votes cast were for Mr Kazai and 300,000 for Mr Abdullah.

Perhaps equally as significant as the alleged corruption, was the 38.7 per cent turnout nationwide. The Taliban had warned people to stay away from polling stations, but there was also a clear sense among large sections of the population that the election offered little genuine hope of change for the better. Nader Khan Katawazai, an MP from the south-eastern province of Paktika, summed up the prevailing mood when he said, "I am not supporting Karzai 100 per cent. Now the government is bad and there is a lot of corruption. But we have to know which is bad and which is worse. Karzai is bad but Abdullah is worse. There was no other way for the Afghan people. Instead of the worst one they chose the bad one."

csands@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by the Associated Press