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In Afghanistan, Disputed Ballots Point Toward Runoff

October 19, 2009 at 12:00 AM EDT
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After months of speculation, investigators confirmed on Monday that the Afghan election was rife with fraud. Margaret Warner reports.

JIM LEHRER: Investigators today confirmed Afghanistan’s presidential election was rife with fraud. The findings by a U.N.-backed group could force a runoff. But it was unclear President Karzai would go along. It was equally unclear how the confusion will affect U.S. policy.

Margaret Warner has our lead story report.

MARGARET WARNER: The audit by the Electoral Complaints Commission declared that hundreds of thousands of votes for President Hamid Karzai were tainted and must be thrown out.

GRANT KIPPEN, electoral complaints commission: The complaints were put forward for a reason, because people believed irregularities took place. And in — in that — in the audit and recount, we did find not an insignificant amount of fraud. So, what it proved to us, that our instinct, the intuition, based on those initial investigations, proved true.

MARGARET WARNER: An independent election monitoring group, Democracy International, calculated that the audit findings would push President Karzai below the 50 percent mark. That would set up a runoff between Karzai and second-place finisher Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister. Democracy International estimated he got just over 31 percent.

But a new vote was far from certain. The independent election commission, an Afghan body, did not say if it will accept the audit commission’s report and order a runoff. Karzai did not speak publicly, but he reportedly was questioning about the fairness of the vote audit. His campaign spokesman insisted it’s too soon to make any decisions based on the fraud findings.

Runoff not guaranteed

WAHEED OMAR, spokesman, President Hamid Karzai: What has been published as a result of their work does not give us an indication of what impact this is going to have on the results of the election. So, we're in no position to react to a piece of complex, complicated information.

MARGARET WARNER: A spokesman for Abdullah Abdullah said there must be a runoff. But, on National Public Radio, the candidate himself left open the door to joining a unity government with Karzai.

DR. ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: I will go not into the details of it before I have the mandate from the people. This looks like the last chance for Afghanistan. If we cannot get it right, then the people of Afghanistan will be disappointed; our friends around the world will be disappointed.

MARGARET WARNER: Resolving the Afghan election is especially important in Washington, as President Obama considers sending more troops.

On Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel said it would be irresponsible to make that decision until it's clear there is a credible Afghan government to be a U.S. partner.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who has spoken to President Karzai and Abdullah by phone, said, she expects Karzai to publicly announce his intentions tomorrow.

Ensuring the constitutional process

HILLARY CLINTON: We have continued to urge that everyone follow the constitution and the legal process, which is important for the people of Afghanistan and their leaders to exemplify a commitment to the orderly running of elections going forward. I am very hopeful that we will see a resolution in line with the constitutional order in the next several days.

MARGARET WARNER: To help make that point behind the scenes, Senator John Kerry made an unplanned return to Afghanistan today from Pakistan. Kerry had been in Kabul yesterday, along with other international envoys, urging Karzai to accept the audit findings.

SEN. JOHN KERRY, D-Mass.: We have too much at stake here. Our troops are on the line. We have people in harm's way in this country. And they're making great sacrifices. And we have a responsibility to make certain that the government here is a full partner in our efforts to be able to be as effective as we can be.

MARGARET WARNER: If there is a runoff, Afghan and U.N. officials say it would have to be held by early November before the harsh Afghan winter sets in. But, given the security and logistical issues involved, it remains unclear if a new and more credible vote can be organized that quickly.

JIM LEHRER: We have an interview with an Afghan election complaints commissioner about the recount. That's on our Web site,