KABUL (Reuters) - Almost a quarter of the votes cast in Afghanistan’s parliamentary election last month were invalid, officials said on Wednesday, but they hailed the poll a success despite low turnout and thousands of complaints.
The top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan applauded the election body for its handling of the counting process, but said “considerable fraud” had been carried out on polling day and called for those responsible to be held accountable.
While announcing preliminary results, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) said 5.6 million votes had been cast — more than a million above earlier estimates — but that it had thrown out 1.3 million of them for various reasons.
It said it had disqualified ballots collected from 2,543 of the 17,744 polling stations that opened for the September 18 election.
“We can very proudly say that the turnout in this election process was higher than our expectations. In the current situation in Afghanistan, this is a success,” IEC chairman Fazl Ahmad Manawi told a news conference.
The election for the lower house of parliament, or wolesi jirga, went ahead despite a Taliban threat to disrupt it, but Western nations have been wary of dubbing it a success after the fiasco of last year’s fraud-marred presidential ballot.
Donors are less concerned about individual results for the 249 seats as they are about the level of fraud committed.
The credibility of the vote will weigh heavily when U.S. President Barack Obama reviews his Afghan war strategy in December amid mounting violence, rising troop casualties and sagging public support.
Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. diplomat in Afghanistan, commended the IEC for “significant improvements” introduced since last year’s presidential poll but said perpetrators of fraud had to be brought to justice.
“The number of votes invalidated and identified by the IEC point to considerable fraud and electoral irregularities on election day,” de Mistura said in a statement.
“We are now looking attentively at this next stage of the process, which should also ensure that those who are proven to have committed fraudulent acts are held accountable.”
Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, backed the IEC’s decision to annul so many votes.
“It is clearly regrettable that it’s that size, it’s clearly regrettable that within that there’s probably a lot of legitimate voters who have unavoidably been disenfranchised, but I think they’ve made the right decision,” he told reporters.
Preliminary results were due on October 8 but were pushed back twice by the IEC to allow for more verifications and recounts. Final results are not likely to be released until well into next month, after the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) sifts through thousands of complaints.
The ECC also has the authority to invalidate more votes.
Despite the level of complaints and disqualified votes, there have been few calls to invalidate the entire election or for another vote to be held.
Earlier this month, the ECC, which tossed out more than a third of President Hamid Karzai’s votes last year, said it had received more than 4,000 formal complaints. More than half of those, it said, could affect the final outcome.
Around 40 percent of complaints received relate to polling irregularities, the ECC says, and some 17 percent to violence and intimidation. Other gripes included problems accessing polling sites and counting irregularities, the watchdog said.
The IEC said soon after polling day that about 4 million Afghans had cast ballots. On Wednesday, an IEC spokesman said that lower figure had only been based on estimates.
Calculating an exact turnout is difficult because Afghanistan has no electoral register.
Editing by Paul Tait and Diana Abdallah