Afghan vote commission orders first ballots invalidated

KABUL — Afghanistan's vote monitoring body on Thursday ordered for the first time that ballots be scrapped from 83 polling stations finding "clear and convincing evidence of fraud" in troubled elections.

Afghans went to the polls in only their second direct presidential election on August 20, but the vote has been marred by low turnout and widespread allegations of vote-rigging, intimidation and other fraud.

"In the course of its investigations, the ECC (Electoral Complaints Commission) has found clear and convincing evidence of fraud" in 83 polling stations in three provinces, the ECC said in statements.

The UN-backed body said the ballots from those stations should be excluded from the final vote, which with almost all ballots counted looks set to re-elect incumbent President Hamid Karzai.

Most of the presidential ballots in question came from Karzai strongholds. The majority were cast in 51 polling stations in southern Kandahar -- Karzai's home province and political heartland but also a Taliban stronghold.

The incumbent's leading challengers have accused Karzai's team of ballot-stuffing and rigging in a bid to buy the leader a second five-year term in office, raising questions about the legitimacy of any new Karzai government.

All presidential ballots in five polling stations in southeastern Paktika province were also invalidated, the commission said.

The ECC cited indications from the Kandahar and Paktika stations "that the ballots were not legally cast, or were not legally counted."

In 27 polling stations in Ghazni, either all the presidential ballots, all the provincial council ballots, or in some cases both, were ordered thrown out.

Investigations in Ghazni found indications of fraud including unfolded ballots, miscounted ballots, missing material, and lists of voters with numerous fictitious card numbers, the ECC said.

There are 600-700 presidential ballot papers and the same number of ballots for provincial elections at each of Afghanistan's 25,450 polling stations, the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) has said.

The IEC previously announced that votes from 447 polling stations -- or 200,000 ballots -- were under investigation. IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said that the figure would likely rise to 650 stations.

ECC chairman Grant Kippen told AFP there would be no repeat voting, with the ballots simply being discounted from the final tally, and said investigations were ongoing in Afghanistan's 34 provinces.

"We're waiting for the IEC to respond to us with respect to the number of polling stations affected and where those polling stations are and then we will investigate that information," he said.

The IEC has announced initial results piecemeal, with Karzai likely to win a second term with more than 54 percent of the vote, with most ballots counted.

But his main rival Abdullah Abdullah -- trailing with less than 30 percent of the vote -- has urged the IEC not to release results while the fraud claims remain unresolved.

Dark horse candidate Ramazan Bashardost, who has won more than 10 percent of the vote so far despite campaigning from a tent, called the ECC move "a good starting step" and urged world leaders to support the commission.

"They should be provided with all the needs they have -- tools, financial and personnel -- and the time they need to address every complaint and to verify every single fraud," he told AFP.

Noor said they hope to release all preliminary results Saturday. The final announcement of the new president is not expected before September 17.

The European Union called on participants in the elections not to declare victory until fraud claims have been investigated.

"The European Union expects that all authorities and stakeholders will conscientiously respect the electoral law and refrain from pre-judging any result until it has been properly certified," a statement said.

"The election process... will not be completed until the final results have been certified according to the electoral law."

US election monitoring group the National Democratic Institute on Thursday expressed "deep concern" about fraud after detecting unusually high turnout in some Taliban-plagued regions.

A violent Taliban campaign aimed at keeping people away from polling stations is believed to have kept turnout as low as 30-35 percent.