Afghan Contenders Claim Leads
The Wall Street Journal

KABUL — The top two contenders for Afghanistan’s presidency, incumbent Hamid Karzai and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, both claimed significant leads in the vote count Friday, each seeking to position himself as the eventual victor.

Both Mr. Karzai’s and Dr. Abdullah’s supporters said reports from their observers, who were monitoring the tally, indicated that their candidate had won more than 50% of the vote and wouldn’t need a second-round runoff election.

“We are ahead in many places,” said Nasrine Gross, a member of Dr. Abdullah’s campaign staff. “We’re confident we will win despite all the fraud that we have seen.”

The Karzai campaign brushed off allegations that it had committed fraud, saying its rivals were seeking only to detract from the president’s victory. “It’s absolutely clear that we will have over 50% of the votes in our favor. This is indicated by our initial observations,” said Seddiq Seddiqi, a Karzai campaign spokesman.

Election observers and diplomats say they fear such statements may raise expectations to the point that neither side’s supporters will accept defeat. That could undermine the legitimacy of the incoming president or, even worse, lead to ethnic clashes. Mr. Karzai is a Pashtun, the country’s largest ethnic group; Dr. Abdullah has a Pashtun father but is more closely aligned with the Tajik minority, his mother’s people.

Locals who went to the polls are almost all voting for Mr. Karzai. “We don’t know what exactly he stands for,” said Rohullah Stanakzai, an unemployed villager. “But our elders pushed us to vote for Karzai, because he is a Pashtun like us. A non-Pashtun should never become president. We’d consider him illegitimate.”

The Independent Election Commission told both candidates to stop speculating about the results, said Daoud Ali Najafi, the chief electoral officer. “If someone’s observers have estimated the numbers, it doesn’t mean it is final,” he told reporters. “We are the reliable source.”

Preliminary turnout figures and results won’t be available until Tuesday, Mr. Najafi said. He estimated total turnout would be close to the 51 % seen in the 2005 parliamentary elections. In Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential elections, the first since the fall of the Taliban, 70% of voters cast ballots.

Many of Mr. Karzai’s rivals accuse the electoral commission of favoring him and allowing fraud to take place. Dr. Abdullah’s campaign — along with those of other opposition contenders — said it was investigating claims of ballot-box stuffing on the part of the Karzai campaign.

The International Republican Institute, a Washington-based democracy-building group that has an extensive operation in Afghanistan, said the election “has so far been credible.”

But it said there were serious problems: government resources were used to boost Mr. Karzai’s campaign; voter registration cards were openly for sale in Afghanistan’s markets; and, perhaps most importantly, security concerns before and during the vote significantly weighed on turnout, although by how much remains unclear.

In villages throughout the ethnic Pashtun areas of Afghanistan, reports of low turnout and fraud threaten to dent the credibility of the polls and pose a major challenge to the new government once it forms.

Those problems were evident in the village of Ilya Khel, outside the capital of Kabul. When asked if he voted during Thursday’s elections, Gul Muhammad’s eyes widened. “Are you crazy? And let the Taliban find ink on my fingers?” he says, referring to the insurgents’ threat to target voters.

Mr. Muhammad was one of many in the Pashtun village who chose to stay home on Election Day. Turnout in Ilya Khel was higher than in surrounding areas, according to local officials. Still, local mullahs preached against going to the polls, saying that it was un-Islamic. It appeared to work on some.

“Going to vote is like drinking wine or adultery,” said Amanullah Mahmoudi, a local.

Ilya Khel looks like most Pashtun villages. High mud walls — meant to keep women out of view — surround every house, and most residents are unemployed or work in seasonal labor. With unpaved roads, no electricity and no access to newspapers or television, it is hard for the government to reach locals.

Mr. Karzai is relying on the Pashtun vote to help him avoid a second-round runoff. He was the front-runner going into the vote, according to a pair of polls, including one by IRI. Taliban threats seem to have hit turnout hardest in the Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan that the president was depending on. The Taliban is largely a Pashtun movement, and strongest in those areas.

Mr. Najafi, the electoral officer, said Helmand, a southern province where U.S. and British forces launched offensives over the summer to help secure the election, “had low turnout.” Northern areas, by contrast, had much higher turnout, he said. The Taliban are weaker in those parts of Afghanistan and that is where Dr. Abdullah was expected to garner the most support.

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