(For main story see [ID:nSP504917])
KABUL, Oct 16 A U.N.-backed fraud watchdog is expected to submit its ruling on Afghanistan's presidential election this weekend, nearly two months after the Aug. 20 vote.
The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), a U.N.-backed watchdog that found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud," must rule on whether enough votes are invalid to overturn a preliminary victory by incumbent Hamid Karzai.
Karzai won 54.6 percent of the vote, but if enough votes were disqualified to push his total below 50 percent he could face his former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah in a second round.
Following are some of the possible outcomes:
FRAUD FOUND INSUFFICIENT TO OVERTURN RESULT, KARZAI WINS: If the ECC finds fraud insufficient to overturn the result, Karzai can be quickly declared the winner and would move to appoint a new government. Abdullah has said his followers would abide by the ECC's decision peacefully.
Some in his camp have suggested there could be unrest if Abdullah's supporters are not given jobs, but Karzai is likely to make overtures to keep them on board.
Abdullah would have few legal avenues to challenge the result, and an inauguration could be held swiftly.
ELECTION OVERTURNED DUE TO FRAUD, SECOND ROUND AVOIDED:
There are at least two ways a second round could be avoided, even if called for by the ECC -- Karzai could seek to overturn the ECC result via legal or other challenges, or Abdullah could agree to withdraw his candidacy as part of a negotiated deal.
Karzai has made clear he would prefer not to fight a second round and has spoken out against the fraud investigation process in recent days, making veiled accusations of foreign meddling.
One of two Afghans on the five-member ECC commission, an appointee of Afghanistan's Supreme Court seen by diplomats as a Karzai supporter, resigned on Monday, accusing the ECC of allowing foreign interference.
Although Karzai has urged the official to stay in his job, the situation could be part of a dangerous gambit. [ID:SP363170]
If Karzai does challenge an ECC ruling, that would anger his Western backers who consider the ECC the election's ultimate arbiter. However, Karzai could use the threat of a challenge as a negotiating ploy.
For his part, Abdullah says he is mainly focused on the election process, but has signalled his openness to a possible compromise while calling for a second round.
"Should it go to the second round? My preference is going for the second round," he told reporters on Thursday.
"We are ready and I have not dismantled the infrastructure for campaigning though the campaign will be different this time and (under) any circumstances I will pursue the agenda for change.
ELECTION OVERTURNED DUE TO FRAUD, SECOND ROUND HELD: Under the rules, if Karzai has less than 50 percent, a second round is to be held within two weeks.
The Washington Post this week cited officials familiar with the results as saying the investigation had already cut Karzai's vote tally to about 47 percent, a result that would trigger a runoff. [ID:nN16328407] Afghanistan's ambassador in Washington, Said Jawad, has said a second round of voting was "likely". [IDLnN16328407]
Ballot papers have already been printed and plans drawn up to hold the run-off by the end of October or beginning of November, before winter makes much of the country impassable.
Karzai, who received more than twice as many votes as Abdullah in the first round and draws his support from larger ethnic communities, would be the odds-on favourite to win in a second round and could decide that it suits him to contest it rather than mount a challenge to an ECC ruling.
But a second round carries risks of new Taliban violence, weeks more of instability, heightened ethnic tensions during the campaign and a second flurry of controversy over fraud.