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    Dueling Claims of Victory in Afghan Presidential Election 

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    Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission is asking voters and the media to ignore claims by competing camps that their candidates captured a first-run victory in the presidential election.  Meanwhile, a prominent U.S.-government funded institute says the electoral process appears to have been credible "so far."  

    The campaigns of both incumbent President Hamid Karzai and his top challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, are both declaring a first-round victory. That despite election officials saying the ballot totals from individual polling sites have not yet reached the capital.

    A candidate needs more than 50 percent to avoid a runoff election.

    An unofficial tabulation by VOA of totals posted at three precincts in different neighborhoods of Kabul shows Mr. Karzai leading, but falling short of capturing more than half of the total ballots.

    Commission officials and international observer groups are asking the public, media and candidates to be patient and await official results.

    Richard Williamson, the former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, is leading the monitoring delegation of the International Republican Institute, which is funded by the American government.

    "Today, I've already heard of two candidates declaring majority victory," he said. "If I recall, such good-natured horseplay happens in American elections, too. The key is that, by September 9th, they have a preliminary count that they are confident reflects what happened."

    Williamson adds "so far, it has been a credible election."

    The Afghan Independent Election Commission, known as the IEC, had previously said partial results would be released 48 hours after the close of Thursday's polls. It now says preliminary totals will not begin to trickle out until Tuesday and certified final results will be released from September 17 through the 21.

    In the meantime, rival camps are trading accusations of vote fraud.

    The IEC says such claims, if filed by candidates or others, will be investigated. The International Republican Institute is being more explicit, commenting in a release that the magnitude of reports of voting registration cards being sold and multiple voting warrants investigation.

    The organization also decries what it calls an "alarming amount"  of fraud and abuse of state resources during the campaign period. The group also criticizes imbalanced election coverage by the state-run media "heavily favoring the incumbent."

    Another concern is a drop in voter turnout compared to the 70 percent seen in 2004. The IRI's Williamson told reporters Friday insecurity, due to Taliban threats to disrupt the election and retaliate against those who voted, was "a dominant factor" in reducing turnout.

    Afghanistan's chief electoral officer, Daoud Ali Najafi,  declines to confirm other officials' estimates of overall turnout dipping between 40 and 50 percent.

    "In the provinces under high security threat level maybe the turnout was low. But there are many provinces where the participants were high. Now it's very difficult for us, because we could not receive the final figures from the provinces. Soon, we will announce the turnout when we get the final figure," he said.

    A low turnout and significant claims of fraud could bring into question the legitimacy of the election. Observers say that could undermine the new government and heighten ethnic tensions in a country with a volatile history of warlords and recent decades of civil war.

    Afghanistan is currently battling - with the help of 100,000 foreign troops - an insurgency led by the Taliban.


    Steve Herman

    A veteran journalist, Steve Herman is VOA's Southeast Asia Bureau Chief and Correspondent, based in Bangkok.

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