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Irregularities continue to pile up in Afghan vote Add to ...

The fate of Afghanistan's troubled presidential election currently lies in a cramped, fluorescent-lit office, at the end of an empty hallway, behind an unmarked door.

Here, a dozen workers sit in silence as though frozen at their foldout desks. However, the scene inside Afghanistan's central Complaints Processing Centre is deceiving. These investigators are backlogged, not bored.

By the end of the day, they will have registered 790 complaints of election-day fraud, the first wave of grievances to trickle in from far-flung polling stations across the country.

Fifty-four of those complaints are considered "top-priority," serious enough to have a direct impact on the outcome of last week's election.

As preliminary results of the vote are released today, the complaints continue to pile up and could have a decisive bearing on whether Hamid Karzai, or his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, can ultimately claim the presidency.

Fraud could have marred as many as one in five ballots forcing them to be discounted, according to some officials.

Meanwhile, some presidential candidates say the irregularities are so widespread that the election should be discounted.

Last night, one of Hamid Karzai's key ministers claimed the president had secured a second term with 68 per cent of the vote.

Finance Minister Hazrat Omar Zakhilwal told reporters Mr. Karzai had won broad support from across the country, though it was unclear how he reached his conclusions.

Other officials from Mr. Karzai's campaign claimed an even higher figure of 72 per cent.

Mr. Karzai's supporters claim the numbers indicate a landslide win, his critics suggest they are evidence of fraud.

"If we go through the investigations and find that these infractions have happened, then yes, they're serious and we will impose sanctions," said Grant Kippen, a mild-mannered Canadian who is chairman of the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), the independent body charged with determining whether the complaints are legitimate.

ECC sanctions include disqualification of a candidate, discounting ballots and fines.

Would irregularities discount enough ballots to swing the vote?

"Possibly," replied Mr. Kippen, in an interview.

Today's preliminary results will reportedly consist of a 10 per cent sampling of the tally so far, drawn largely from polling centres in Kabul, considered a stronghold of Mr. Karzai.

The Afghan president and his chief rival, Abdullah Abdullah, both claimed victory in the early wake of last week's election.

However, Dr. Abdullah has since suggested he's bracing for defeat.

Over the weekend, he launched a scathing attack on the Afghan president, accusing him of orchestrating massive vote rigging to steal the election.

Some observers have taken the personal nature of his comments as an indication that Mr. Abdullah is positioning himself to be leader of the political opposition if he is forced to concede.

That interpretation trumps earlier speculation that Dr. Abdullah would accept a senior post in Mr. Karzai's new government.

Although Dr. Abdullah has vowed to legally challenge an outright win for Mr. Karzai, he has discouraged his supporters from protesting in the streets.

Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Dr. Abdullah left the door open to him becoming an opposition leader, working within the political system.

"It's too early to talk about this, but in general, whether he wins or doesn't win, Dr. Abdullah remains committed to his principles and goals," said Sayyid Agha Hussain Fazel Sancharaki, Dr. Abdullah's spokesman.

Another campaign official said: "If Dr. Abdullah does not win, he will only gain more support and will win next time."

Under Afghan law, Mr. Karzai is prohibited from seeking a third term in office.

A credible result in Afghanistan's second presidential elections is seen as crucial for Western-led efforts to stabilize the country through military and financial support.

Mr. Karzai had been considered the front-runner when the presidential campaign kicked off this spring. However, he lost considerable momentum to Dr. Abdullah in the weeks leading up to the vote.

The European Union election observer mission has declared the process "good and fair," though other observers documented widespread allegations of electoral fraud and irregularities.

Mr. Kippen, of the ECC, warned of a possible "avalanche" of complaints in the coming days, an indication of the level of fraud suspected to have marred last week's presidential election.

Privately, officials from his office express frustration that preliminary results will be released before the ECC completes its investigation, a process that could take weeks.

"It's a bit discouraging for us, because it undermines the process. We are cautioning everybody that [today's are]preliminary results," said one official, speaking on background.

Most of the complaints catalogued yesterday appeared to be concentrated in the Pashtun south, considered Mr. Karzai's traditional base of support.

Yesterday, they included allegations of ballot boxes being filled in favour of Mr. Karzai ahead of the vote, police forcing Afghans to cast ballots at gunpoint and men voting in the name of their wives.

Mirwais Yasini, a presidential candidate and deputy speaker of Afghanistan's lower house of parliament, complained that thousands of votes cast for him had been removed from ballot boxes, and were set to be destroyed before being were rescued by his supporters.

He is demanding Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission cancel last week's vote, calling it a "disgrace."

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