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Afghan officials toss out votes

It’s small share of ballots; panel’s next steps unclear

M. Karim Faiez And Laura King Los Angeles Times

KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghan election officials on Sunday announced their first mass disqualification of votes because of possible fraud in the bitterly contested presidential race, even as President Hamid Karzai edged closer to the majority he needs for a first-round victory.

Election authorities declined to say how many votes were affected when results from nearly 450 polling places were set aside pending an investigation. Because voting took place in about 26,000 locales, this probably represents only a small share of total ballots cast. But the move could herald more such disqualifications.

The Aug. 20 vote – which began as not only a hopeful exercise in democracy but also a key element of the West’s long-term strategy of a stable Afghan government taking on more security responsibilities – is rapidly threatening to become a debacle. Supporters of Karzai’s main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, could react violently if they see their candidate as having been unfairly deprived of the chance to face Karzai in a runoff.

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, has accused the president’s camp of widespread and systematic fraud. It was unclear whether the vote disqualification announced Sunday signaled election officials’ genuine willingness to act on fraud allegations, which mainly have been directed at Karzai, or whether the panel of mostly presidential appointees was trying to bolster an image of impartiality as a prelude to declaring Karzai the winner.

With fraud allegations mounting, the commission’s head, Daoud Ali Najafi, defended the checks and balances in place under election law.

“We’re telling the candidates again and again … they can come to the election commission and we can resolve the problem, or they can go to the Electoral Complaints Commission,” he said.

The complaints commission, a U.N.-backed body, is considering more than 2,000 claims of fraud and intimidation, nearly 700 of them potentially serious enough to affect the results.

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