KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan officials announced most of the long-delayed results from a September parliamentary election on Wednesday, but more disqualifications and protests and the emergence of a potential new opposition bloc clouded the poll.
The credibility of the result will weigh heavily on U.S. President Barack Obama’s review of his Afghanistan war strategy, due next month, amid rising violence and sagging public support, especially after a fraud-marred presidential election last year.
Consistent allegations of vote fraud in both polls have raised questions about the credibility of Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s government at a time when U.S. and NATO officials have been re-examining their long-term commitment in Afghanistan.
Wednesday’s events will not have helped that process. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) had promised full results more than 10 weeks after the September 18 poll but IEC Chairman Fazl Ahmad Manawi said results in volatile Ghazni province southwest of Kabul still had to be determined.
The other 33 provinces plus one seat for Kuchi nomads were announced. IEC spokeswoman Marzia Siddiqi Salim said without Ghazni’s 11 allocated seats, 238 places in the 249-seat wolesi jirga, or lower house, had been decided.
“It might be in a week,” Siddiqi said when asked when a new parliament would be formed.
What shape that parliament might take looms as Karzai’s next big challenge, with senior opposition figure Abdullah Abdullah saying he would have the support of a loose coalition of more than 90 lawmakers in the new parliament.
“The presence of a bigger number of opposition members of parliament will certainly have an impact ... I think we will be able to introduce some checks and balances,” said Abdullah, who was runner-up to Karzai last year but did not contest the parliamentary ballot.
There were no major opposition blocs in the previous house, which critics say Karzai had ridden over roughshod. With no formal party representation, most alliances are issue-based.
Manawi said another three winning candidates had been disqualified over irregularities, taking the total thrown out to 24. Despite huge fraud concerns, and calls by protesters for the vote to be annulled, Manawi said there would not be another vote.
The United Nations mission in Afghanistan has cautiously congratulated Kabul on staging the poll despite widespread violence, but has also noted “considerable fraud.” It welcomed the declaration of results and backed the Ghazni decision.
“The formation of a new parliament will be a major step in Afghanistan’s path to improving its democratic governance and the capacity of Afghan institutions to deliver services to the Afghan people,” the United Nations said in a statement.
Disgruntled candidates, lawmakers and supporters have called for the September poll to be scrapped. Dozens took to the streets of Kabul on Wednesday to protest against a polling process they say was corrupt and shameful.
About 150 people gathered outside Karzai’s palace. Some carried banners saying “Hijacked parliament = collapse of democracy.” Roads around the palace were blocked.
“Blocking the road and launching violence because they have not got a seat is not the right thing to do and is a malicious act against the country,” Karzai said.
The protesters have warned that failure to address grievances about the poll would push Afghans toward the insurgency.
Violence across Afghanistan is at its worst since the Taliban were overthrown by U.S.-backed Afghan forces in late 2001, despite the presence of almost 150,000 foreign troops.
U.S. and NATO leaders last week agreed to Karzai’s 2014 target for Afghan security forces to take over from foreign forces, although some have warned that could spill into 2015.
The U.S. military said on Tuesday all types of violent incidents had increased from April to the end of September, except for the use of roadside bombs, and were up 300 percent from 2007.
About 2,500 candidates ran for the 249 available seats. A U.N.-backed watchdog said on Sunday nearly one in 10 winning candidates had been disqualified for fraud.
The adjudication of complaints by the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) cleared the way for the IEC to release final results.
There were more than 6,000 complaints lodged with the ECC and the IEC has already thrown out almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast as invalid. The IEC is also being investigated by the attorney general’s office over election fraud.
Late on Tuesday, Afghan media reported two election officials — one each from the IEC and ECC — had been suspended by the attorney general’s office for “making statements against the national interest.” Manawi said the reports were “unfortunate.”
Additional reporting by Emma Graham-Harrison and Abdul Saboor; Editing by Sugita Katyal