Karzai campaign declares victory in vote

The leading rivals in Afghanistan’s presidential election both claimed they were headed for victory on Friday, raising the risk of a dispute over the results that could undermine US President Barack Obama’s attempts to portray the polls as a success.

Aides to President Hamid Karzai, who has led Afghanistan since 2001, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister viewed as his closest challenger, both said their analysis of voting showed their candidates were headed for an outright majority.US officials were already bracing themselves for a contested result from the ballot, which was marred by dozens of attacks by militants and what observers described as a significantly lower turnout than the last presidential polls in 2004.

”We always knew it would be a disputed election,” said Richard Holbrooke, Mr Obama’s envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan. “I would not be surprised if you see candidates claiming victory and fraud in the next few days.”

The Independent Election Commission said on Friday it was too early for any candidate to claim to have won.

Preliminary returns from Thursday’s poll are expected to start emerging over the weekend, although definitive results could take several weeks to compile. Afghanistan is due to hold a run-off in early October if no candidate wins a clear majority.

Mr Obama’s administration is banking on credible elections to show Afghans that the more than 100,000 Western troops in the country are helping Afghanistan achieve more accountable government and reverse gains made by Taliban insurgents in the past year.

That hope was undermined by scenes of deserted polling stations reported by observers in many areas where disenchantment with Mr Karzai’s progress in tackling poverty and insecurity, as well as fear of insurgents’ bombs, prompted many people to stay at home. At least 26 people are estimated to have been killed in a spate of attacks on polling day.

Analysts say any dividends Mr Obama’s administration may reap from the elections in its attempts to stabilise Afghanistan will hinge to a large extent on the ability of the country’s electoral complaints commission to resolve claims of fraud in a transparent manner.

Reports of attempts to stuff ballots and evidence that unusually high numbers of women voters were registered in some of Afghanistan’s more culturally-conservative areas have added to concerns over the scale of attempted rigging. Insecurity made independent monitoring impossible in many areas. Mr Karzai has sought to win outright partly through making deals with powerful warlords whose forces were accused of major human rights violations during years of civil war but who may be capable of delivering large blocs of voters.

Mr Abdullah is relying on a support from the ethnic Tajik minority in northern Afghanistan, where observers believe turnout was higher than in the east and south, the focus of the Taliban insurgency.

The International Republican Institute, a US organisation which monitors elections worldwide, said the threat of attack was the main factor ensuring that turnout had been significantly lower than in 2004.

“I went to over 20 [polling] stations yesterday and more than half of them, when I was there, were ghost towns,” said Richard S. Williamson, who led the IRI delegation.

“The insurgents didn’t win yesterday because millions went to the polls. They didn’t lose either.”

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