August 23, 2009 / 10:53 AM / 8 years ago

Afghan challenger says election "widely rigged"

<p>Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks during a news conference in Kabul August 23, 2009.The main challenger to president Hamid Karzai in last week's Afghan elections said on Sunday he had evidence the ballot had been widely rigged.Omar Sobhani</p>

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai's main challenger said on Sunday he had evidence last week's election had been widely rigged by the incumbent and that he had lodged more than 100 complaints.

With counting underway following Thursday's vote, the country is on tenterhooks before an official result, although the start of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and a relative lull in violence has helped calm tensions.

An election result respected by the candidates and their supporters is crucial for the country and for U.S. President Barack Obama, who has made stabilising Afghanistan his top foreign policy priority.

Washington has poured thousands more troops into Afghanistan this year as part of Obama's new regional strategy to defeat the Taliban, but polls show support for the 8-year-old war is slipping as casualties increase from the growing insurgency.

"I think it is serious and it is deteriorating, and I've said that over the past couple of years, that the Taliban insurgency has gotten better, more sophisticated, in their tactics," said Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Mullen told CNN television that General Stanley McChrystal, commander of some 102,000 U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan, had not yet asked for more forces.

NATO military commanders told visiting U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke on Sunday that they needed more troops and other resources to beat back a resurgent Taliban, particularly in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistan border.

U.S. Major General Curtis Scaparotti, commander of forces in eastern Afghanistan, said he told Holbrooke that veteran Taliban commander Jalaluddin Haqqani had expanded his reach in several areas.

"Haqqani is the central threat. We've seen that expansion and that's part of what we're fighting," Scaparotti said.

Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, whom polls gave a fighting chance of pushing the election to a second round, said he had evidence of widespread rigging. Abdullah and Karzai's camp both say they are ahead in the vote count.

"The initial reports we are receiving are a bit alarming, I must say," he said. "There might have been thousands of violations throughout the country, no doubt about it."

Abdullah accused Karzai of "widespread rigging" and said his team had lodged more than 100 complaints with election officials.

<p>A German soldier walks on a patrol during a training session of the Quick Response Force (QRF) in the German camp in Mazar e Sharif August 21, 2009.Ruben Sprich</p>

"This has to be prevented. That's critical for the survival of the process and that's critical as far as the hope for a better life of the Afghan people is concerned," Abdullah said.

In a separate news briefing, the country's election watchdog said it was dealing with scores of complaints, but there was no sign they would directly affect the result.

The Independent Election Commission also said partial results would be released on Tuesday, and repeated its warning to candidates that they should not make premature declarations.

Significant Complaints

<p>Election workers count provincial votes at a school, a day after Afghanistan's presidential election, in Kabul August 21, 2009.Adrees Latif</p>

Two opinion polls before the election predicted Karzai would win but not by enough to prevent a second round run-off against Abdullah in October. Karzai must win more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid a runoff.

The Election Complaints Commission (ECC) said it had received 225 complaints, ranging from voter intimidation, violence, ballot box tampering, and interference by some Independent Election Commission officials.

Kippen said the ECC was aware of "significant complaints" of vote irregularities, but that there were no specific charges against individual candidates such as Karzai.

Millions of Afghans braved threats of Taliban violence to vote in what was only the country's second presidential election.

Abdullah said the southern provinces of Ghazni and Kandahar -- the birthplace of the Taliban -- were major areas of concern. He said vastly exaggerated voter turnouts were being reported, as well as ballot box stuffing well after the actual vote.

With the outcome still unpublished and both sides claiming victory, Washington's envoy to the region, Richard Holbrooke, said Karzai and Abdullah had both promised to respect the result.

"So the United States' position, and that of all our NATO allies, is unanimous: we all will respect the decision of the Independent Election Commission," he said on a visit to the western province of Herat on Sunday.

Western and Afghan officials have breathed a sigh of relief that violence did not wreck the election altogether after Taliban militants threatened to disrupt it and launched sporadic attacks across the country on the morning of the poll.

Attacks and threats did scare many people away, however, especially in the Taliban's southern heartland. Since voters in the south were expected to back Karzai, poor turnout there increases the chance of a run-off.

Additional reporting by Golnar Motevalli in Kabul and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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