KABUL, Afghanistan, Aug. 23, 2009— -- 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.
Afghan Presidential Election Fraud Claimed
"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.
International observers admit that they may be hard pressed to spot fraud, since security fears prevented them from witnessing voting in many parts of southern and eastern Afghanistan.
Taliban Tactics Scare off Afghan Voters
The Free and Fair Elections Foundation, an Afghan group, said Taliban militants had followed through on threats and chopped the fingers off of two voters in the southern district of Kandahar. The interior ministry says the Taliban launched more than 70 attacks and killed at least 26 on election day.
"When you're holding an election during a war, it's extremely difficult I think to have the types of observer missions that you might have in a different country," Katulis said.
"International observers were extremely constrained in their ability to actually see much of this election," he said. "I don't know of any international observer delegation that had a significant presence in the rural parts of this country. And this country is mostly rural."
There are no official tallies of turnout, especially in southern Afghanistan, where the Taliban are strongest. But in Helmand and Kandahar, where thousands of U.S. troops have arrived this year to try and battle back the insurgency, threats and dozens of attacks reduced turnout to as low as 5 percent, according to the campaign of Ashraf Ghani, who was running fourth in polls before the election.
International observers have said turnout would be closer to 10 to 15 percent, and that overall turnout will be around 50 percent.
That is far lower than the 70 percent turnout during the 2004 elections.
The difference is reflective of the changes in Afghanistan since 2004: a deterioration of security and widespread disenchantment with democracy. More than half of Afghans, according to an ABC/BBC/ARD poll, believe the country is headed in the wrong direction.
That was evident in a long conversation in one of Kabul's central parks with a group of men in their late 20s and early 30s. For an hour the group traded comments about the election and answered ABC News questions. All the men were Pashtun, the largest ethnic group of the country and the one most affected by lack of security. Of the nine talking, only one voted, though he had managed to wash off most of the indelible ink used to prevent fraud.
Unemployed Afghans Say Presidential Vote Unlikely to Improve Life
Agha Khan, 28 answered for the group when he said most of them did not vote because the Taliban controls much of the areas where their families live.
He said he was driving from Jalalabad, where his family lives in eastern Afghansitan, to Kabul when "the police told me that on the way there are Taliban. They were stopping people and checking their fingers, and whoever had voted and had ink on their fingers, they were cutting their fingers off."
"Security is a big factor," said Samiullah, 29, who like many Afghans goes by only one name. He lives on the edge of Kabul and said there was a small Taliban attack early in the morning.
"My phone started ringing and everyone from my family was asking, 'Where are you, what the hell are you doing, why aren't you home?'" he said. "I told them I was voting. And they asked, 'Why? It's not worth it.' So many of my family had registered to vote, but they didn't go out because of security that day."
The disillusionment extends to their personal lives. Asked where they worked, each admitted he did not have a job. And asked whether they thought the next president could help get them jobs, only one said yes.
"Everyone should accept the election," Samiullah said. "Afghans have suffered from the last three decades of war, so now this is the time for them to put their hands together and just accept it and just move forward."