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Afghan watchdog alters vote recount after criticism

KABUL (Reuters) - The U.N.-backed watchdog overseeing a fraud investigation in Afghanistan’s August 20 vote altered its ballot-counting rules Wednesday, ditching a plan criticized for favoring President Hamid Karzai.

An election worker opens a ballot box during the audit and recount process, at a warehouse in Kabul October 5, 2009. REUTERS/Ahmad Masood

The new recount rules, which watchdog officials said were a “clarification,” take into account the possibility one candidate may have disproportionately benefitted from fraud, a finding that would be necessary in order for Karzai to be forced to face a second round.

The Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), mainly appointed by the United Nations, has ordered a recount of ballot boxes it deemed suspicious -- around 12 percent of the total -- after finding “clear and convincing evidence of fraud.”

To speed it up, officials are sampling 10 percent of those suspicious boxes.

Preliminary results gave Karzai 54.6 percent of the vote. If the fraud investigation reduces his share below 50 percent, he would face a run-off against his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah.

For that to happen, the commission would have to find fraud overwhelmingly benefitted Karzai, which the president denies.

Under rules the ECC announced Monday, such a finding would have been unlikely, because the commission said it would eliminate the same percentage of votes for all candidates from groups of ballots that were suspicious for the same reason.

Wednesday, it issued new guidelines, which specify a separate percentage of fraudulent ballots would be calculated for each candidate, so candidates who benefitted more from fraud would face a greater penalty.

Diplomats say about 75 percent of the ballots in the suspicious group were cast for Karzai. Karzai’s opponents say his share of the fraud may have been far greater, because most of the fraud took place in the south, where he won overwhelming support.

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Under Monday’s rules, more than 1 million ballots could be found to be fraudulent and Karzai would still win in a single round. Under the revised rules, Karzai could potentially face a second round if as few as 520,000 votes are disqualified.


Karzai says the extent of fraud has been exaggerated by some Western officials and media. Officials expect the final outcome next week, with a second round at the end of October if needed.

ECC officials said the new rules amounted to a “clarification” of Monday’s order, rather than a change. ECC official Scott Borden said the intent was always to calculate separate percentages for each candidate.

However, Borden and several other ECC officials, including the body’s head, Grant Kippen, had told Reuters Monday the same percentage would be applied to each candidate.

Asked by Reuters on Monday: “You are going to apply the same percentage to all of them, that’s what you said today?,” Kippen nodded and said: “Yep.”

“We are trying to put some sort of number on it: 70 percent, 50 percent, 20 percent, etc. And then we will be looking at all of the votes that these candidates have received in that universe and we will be applying that percentage against the votes that these candidates received,” he said.

The initial rules had attracted criticism. Peter Galbraith, a U.S. diplomat fired as deputy head of the Kabul U.N. mission for speaking out about fraud called them “not acceptable.”

“It cannot be correct to treat all presidential candidates equally for disqualification of ballots, because there was not an equal opportunity for fraud,” Galbraith told Reuters on Monday.

“Let’s not mince words: there was one candidate who had control of the state apparatus.”

Editing by Jonathon Burch and Jerry Norton