President Hamid Karzai's chief competitor today accused the incumbent of "widespread rigging," while the body that judges electoral complaints admitted fraud could alter the results in Afghanistan's second ever presidential election.
Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's former foreign minister, said his campaign has evidence of "more than 100" instances of fraud committed by Karzai's campaign, including ballot stuffing, blocking observers and stealing ballot boxes.
"Widespread rigging has taken place by the incumbent and through its campaign team and through state apparatus, through government officials," Abdullah told reporters in Kabul today. "That might have an impact on the overall outcome of the elections."
The Electoral Complaints Commission, which is backed by the United Nations, echoed Abdullah's concern, acknowledging it had received 420 complains since the polls closed on Thursday, including at least 35 that "could affect the election results," Scott Warden, an ECC member, told ABC News late today.
The allegations of fraud, combined with turnout down by as much as half from the 2004 election, could reduce the election's legitimacy and the next government's mandate. They could also dampen some of the momentum that Afghan and U.S. officials were hoping the election would create.
U.S. officials admit they are waiting for the election to determine the focus of new policies in Afghanistan, including political reconciliation with Taliban fighters. An extended election fight could bog down that goal.
"If those leaders that emerge at the provincial level and then the president aren't viewed as legitimate, the whole program of trying to build governance and economic development is on a shaky foundation," says Brian Katulis, a senior fellow with the Center for American Progress who is in Kabul as an election observer.
The process to conclude the election could take even longer than scheduled, election officials admitted today. While the Independent Election Commission has said it will release preliminary results on Tuesday and final results by Sept. 17, that is dependent on all complaints being investigated by then.
Depending on how many complaints were received, though, it might take longer to investigate all of them, Warden said.
"There's no legal obligation to finish by Sept. 17," he said. "We do have a legal obligation to listen to everyone's complaint and investigate it."
Abdullah called the next few weeks "the crucial time as far as Afghanistan, as far as the future of democracy is concerned."
His campaign spoke confidently, telling ABC News that "without fraud, Dr. Abdullah is higher than 50 percent," according to Najib Yahya, an Abdullah advisor. "But with fraud, anything can happen."
Karzai has denied all allegations of fraud, accusing Abdullah of masking a possible second place finish.
Abdullah began alleging fraud almost immediately after the voting ended, but today's accusations were larger in scope than he had presented before. He said a border security guard in Kandahar, Gen. Abdul Raziq, stuffed a ballot box for Karzai after using his guest house as a polling station.
"The credibility of the process will depend on how much we are able to prevent big fraud, big rigging, which has been under way and has been conducted by the incumbent and his team," he said soberly to a group of about 40 mostly foreign journalists.