Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission announced Tuesday that results of the presidential runoff election will be delayed by at least several days as votes from nearly 2,000 polling places are reviewed in response to allegations of massive fraud.
Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who was the clear front-runner with 45% of the vote in the initial eight-man contest in April, has accused the commission, his opponent and current President Hamid Karzai of complicity in ballot-box stuffing.
Election commissioner Sharifa Zurmati told reporters in Kabul, the capital, that the runoff results, which have already been logged in the commission database, would be released no sooner than Saturday to allow time to review ballots from the regions where major fraud was alleged.
Abdullah's opponent in the June 14 runoff, former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani, has denied the accusations that his campaign was party to voting fraud and called for the preliminary results to be announced Wednesday as scheduled. After Zurmati said the vote counts would be delayed, though, Ghani spokesman Abbas Noyan said the campaign had no objections.
"It's good for the transparency of the election, and our votes were very clean," Noyan said, according to news agencies in Kabul.
He expressed the hope that the planned Aug. 2 inauguration date wouldn't be affected by the delay.
Ghani won 31.6% of the vote in the initial round of balloting in April, more than 13 percentage points behind Abdullah.
Abdullah's spokesman, Fazel Sangcharaki, also praised the decision to review the votes cast in 1,930 polling stations, or more than 8% of the voting venues nationwide, to "separate the clean votes from the fraudulent ones."
If the commission releases the preliminary results without thorough review of the contested polling places, "it will suffer the consequences and the anger of our supporters. We can't stop the rage of the people," Sangcharaki warned.
Thousands of Abdullah supporters staged an angry protest Friday in Kabul over the fraud allegations. Abdullah also says that he lost the 2009 presidential election to Karzai because of vote-rigging.
The United Nations mission chief in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, last week warned of rising ethnic tension in the country provoked by the election conflict.
Abdullah, a physician and former anti-Taliban fighter, draws support from Tajiks and other northern populations, while Ghani loyalists are primarily among Pashtun tribes of the south and east.
Kubis urged Afghan political leaders to "act decisively to manage these events and avoid any slippery slope to civil disorder and instability."
Both Abdullah and Ghani have said they will sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States to keep as many as 10,000 troops in Afghanistan for training and counter-terrorism after the U.S.-led combat mission ends in December. Karzai declined to sign the pact, saying it was a matter for his successor to decide.
Pentagon officials have complained about the delayed security agreement complicating their planning and budgeting for a post-2014 presence. Taliban fighters who have taken cover since the 2001 U.S. invasion in the lawless Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands have stepped up attacks in recent weeks.
Security analysts worry that 13 years of Western defense and development investment could be wiped out by the resurgent Taliban if the International Security and Assistance Force withdraws without leaving behind at least an advisory contingent.
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