Karzai takes clear lead in Afghan vote

Afghan electoral authorities have announced the first cancellation of votes from last month’s fraud-tainted elections as partial results show President Hamid Karzai with a clear lead.

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Election officials had cancelled the votes from 447 polling sites across the country, accounting for up to 200,000 votes, due to fraud, a spokesman for the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said on Sunday.

Karzai held onto his lead, with 48.6 per cent of the vote, according to partial results, well ahead of his nearest rival, Abdullah Abdullah, with 31.7 per cent.

The IEC announced results from 74.2 per cent of the polling stations used in only Afghanistan’s second direct presidential election.

Out of 4.3 million valid votes, Karzai won 2.9 million and former foreign minister Abdullah 1.36 million, IEC official Daud Ali Najafi told a news conference.

“Votes from 447 polling stations across the country have been nullified because of fraud,” Noor Mohammed Noor, IEC spokesman, told AFP.

He said each polling site had about 600-700 ballots, so the cancelled ballots “could be around 200,000 votes”.

The total number of polling sites was 25,450, he said, adding that votes had been counted from 18,877 sites, leaving those from 6,573 sites to be counted.

The election held on August 20 has been overshadowed by allegations of widespread fraud and vote-rigging, with the Election Complaints Commission (ECC) dealing with more than 2,000 complaints.

The ECC has said about one third of those complaints could impact the final result, which is not due to be announced before September 17.

Karzai is still short of the 50 per cent plus one vote needed to secure an outright victory and avoid a run-off, which many observers have warned could be damaging if turnout proves lower a second time around.

The results have been delayed by the IEC, which has strayed from its original timetable under which preliminary results were to be released between September 3 and 7.

An IEC spokeswoman said on Sunday she had “no idea” when the preliminary results would be released. Final results are due on September 17.

Even once preliminary figures are released, full results will have to wait until the allegations of irregularities are investigated by the ECC.

Throughout the laborious process of piecemeal announcements, the two main contenders for the presidency have each claimed victory.

Abdullah has also alleged widespread vote-rigging by Karzai’s camp and has threatened to reject any result he regards as compromised.

He warned on Saturday “state-engineered vote” fraud could fuel instability and Taliban insurgency and urged the international community to intervene.

“We have insecurity in this country. We have bad government. We have corruption. We have narcotics. We have a war. We have an insurgency,” Abdullah told a reporters in Kabul.

He said a rigged election would hand another “excuse” to the increasingly deadly insurgency against the Western-backed Afghan authorities and foreign troops.

There have been fears that the results could effectively divide the country. Abdullah has his powerbase in the north, among ethnic Tajiks, while Karzai is influential in the Pashtun-dominated south.

NATO and Western allies have stressed in recent days their long-term commitment to keeping troops in Afghanistan to fight the resurgent Taliban, despite the fraud concerns.

The European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Javier Solana, said on Sunday the government that emerges from the election must work more closely with its Western backers.

“It must be a government that is committed to a series of non-corrupt activities and that cooperates more closely with the international community,” he told Spanish radio.

A NATO air strike in northern Kunduz province on Friday, which officials said killed scores of people, revived controversy over Western military operations that kill civilians as well as the intended insurgent targets.

A local official said 54 people had been killed in the strike, as well as another two who were murdered by Taliban militants just before.

The international military meanwhile denied reports that an investigation into the air strike had found it was ordered in breach of NATO rules.

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