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Afghan Runoff Stirs Concern of Repeat Fraud

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Afghanistan is scheduled to hold its runoff presidential election November 7. But can an electoral process that was so deeply marred by fraud the first time around be fixed in a short time? There is concern the second round of voting will prove to be as flawed as the first.

The runoff election between incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his main challenger, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah faces multiple challenges: Taliban intimidation, voter apathy and cynicism, increasingly harsh winter weather, and, most of all, a turnaround time of only two weeks.

U.S. Special Envoy on Afghanistan Richard Holbrooke believes the second round of voting will be cleaner than the first.

"It is reasonable to hope that there will be less irregularities this time for several reasons," said Richard Holbrooke. "One, there are only two candidates; two, there is the experience factor; three, the international community, including the forces under General McChrystal's command, are going to go all out to help make this a success."

The United States wants a relatively clean election while it considers whether to send more troops and resources to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.

But International Crisis Group senior analyst Candace Rondeaux says a hastily planned election will in all likelihood be just as fraud-filled as the initial Aug. 20 vote.

"The question has to be asked, why go forward? Legally speaking, the runoff has to take place," said Candace Rondeaux. "You have to satisfy the legal processes that are in place in the constitution. However, I do not think that you can expect any great new thunderbolts of just and fair elections because we still have the same machinery in place that has not been fixed at all."

In the first round, more than a million ballots, most of them for Mr. Karzai, were declared fraudulent by the U.N.-run Election Complaints Commission, depriving Mr. Karzai of what he claimed was an outright electoral victory. According to media reports, he only reluctantly bowed to international pressure for a runoff between him and Dr. Abdullah.

Former EU Special Envoy to Afghanistan, Francesc Vendrell, tells VOA the widespread fraud only served to feed cynicism among Afghan voters, who he says are already disillusioned about the lack of peace and security.

"Over the last four years, ever since the parliamentary elections - which were not as fair as people thought - I think there has been a decreasing faith on the part of the Afghans in their government, in the kind of quote, unquote, democratic process that we had encouraged and that they would have been very happy to adopt," said Francesc Vendrell. "I think their faith in the current setup has already been very badly shaken. And so this will only come as confirmation."

A just-released nationwide survey of Afghans finds them more optimistic than expected, but still concerned about corruption and insecurity. A just-released International Crisis Group report says the fraudulent first round and continuing political uncertainty have been a boon for the Taliban insurgency.

Analysts say part of the problem of electoral credibility stems from the widespread belief that the Afghan Independent Election Commission is not truly independent and that it is partisan for Mr. Karzai. There is standing tension between the Afghan-run Election Commission, which counted the ballots, and the U.N.-backed Complaints Commission, which invalidated the fraudulent ballots.

Candace Rondeaux says that unless the Election Commission is cleaned up the likelihood of repeated massive fraud is high.

"In order to really correct the flaws in this process you need a major overhaul. Not only do you have to remove, I think, the chairman of the IEC, the Independent Election Commission, you then have to look at reconstituting the entire IEC secretariat," she said. "The leadership of this body has been so abysmal that it does not make sense to think that you would get different results by having the same people review ballots again."

Mr. Karzai has rebuffed a request by Dr. Abdullah for the dismissal of Election Commission chief Azizullah Ludin. U.N. officials have said many of the polling stations that recorded fraudulent votes in the first round would not be open for the second, but Ludin has contended they will be. He is also resisting calls to get rid of some of the electoral officials the United Nations has found to be corrupt.