KABUL — With the vote finished, the next key for Afghan presidential hopefuls is how many ballots will actually be counted.
Voters, observers and candidates have filed more than 3,000 complaints about Saturday’s historic presidential vote, with many more still likely to come, though election officials say the numbers are lower than in the heavily disputed 2009 election when there were allegation of widespread fraud. That year, more than one million votes, out of an initial count of just over five million, were disqualified because of fraud or other irregularities.
As the jubilation dies down over what was seen by many as a triumphant election with a voter turnout over 7 million, these complaints could prove key in the outcome of what would be the first democratic transition of power in the country’s history, with President Hamid Karzai constitutionally barred from running again.
“The review of the election complaints is very important for a transparent election result and also to respect the decision of the people,” said Shahla Fareed, an analyst and professor of political science at Kabul University.
With preliminary results still likely two weeks away, for now the main candidates — Karzai rival and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Zalmai Rassoul — are left to make pronouncements about their own projections of the vote.
The transparency of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the government body tasked with resolving election disputes, will be closely scrutinized. The body was criticized for not disclosing the reasons for disqualifying 17 candidates before the election. The commissioners were handpicked by Karzai, leading some to question their independence.
“Some strong criteria was ignored during the selection (process), like professionalism and independence,” said Jandad Spinghar, director of Afghanistan’s leading independent election observer group, the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan. “Now, we are looking to see the performance of these guys — (if) they perform independently then all the doubts might be satisfied.”
Early on, the ECC is keeping information close to the vest: At a news conference on Tuesday, commissioners would not say which provinces registered the most complaints. Many anecdotal reports have pointed to intimidation and poor security keeping voters away from polling stations in some rural areas in contrast to the high turnout seen in Afghan cities.
“We are committed to resolving complaints independently and without pressure and respecting the true vote of the Afghan people,” ECC commissioner Nadir Muhseni said.
Roughly half of the complaints were written and will be officially adjudicated. The other half were made by telephone, tips commissioners will use to investigate irregularities but that cannot be used as evidence, Muhseni said.
Most expect a run-off election between the two top vote-getters, and the three frontrunners in the race will be watching the complaints process intently and jockeying for position as the complaints are adjudicated in the coming weeks. Whoever places third could play spoiler by endorsing one of the two remaining candidates, thereby likely bringing many of his supporters with him.
Whoever wins will be the first president not named Hamid Karzai since the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and knocked out the ruling Taliban. The next leader will be key to the future of a sagging relationship between Washington and Kabul, which has deteriorated into open enmity at times under Karzai.
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report