Ballots from about 10 percent of Afghanistan's polling stations must be recounted because of suspicions of fraud in last month's presidential election, according to an order from a U.N.-backed body, an official said Tuesday.
The recounts raise the possibility that President Hamid Karzai's lead could drop below the 50 percent threshold, forcing the country to hold a second-round runoff between Karzai and top challenger Abdullah Abdullah.
More than 2,500 polling sites from the Aug. 20 presidential election need to be recounted, said Grant Kippen, the head of the Electoral Complaints Commission, a U.N.-backed body headed by three international and two Afghan commissioners.
Massive allegations of fraud have tainted the country's second-ever direct presidential vote. Last week the ECC ordered Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, the body in charge of the election, to recount and audit ballot boxes from stations that had 100 percent turnout or where a candidate received more than 95 percent of the valid votes.
More than 2,500 stations are affected by the ECC's recount order, Kippen said. There were about 26,300 polling stations across Afghanistan on election day.
EU presses for fraud probe
The European Union, meanwhile, added its voice to those urging the commission to thoroughly investigate all complaints.
"We will press for an investigation of all fraud allegations," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels on Tuesday. "It is important that the elected president is recognized and respected by the entire population of Afghanistan."
The 27-nation EU has already backed off its initial positive assessment of the Afghan elections. The bloc fears doubts about the Afghan regime's electoral legitimacy would make it more difficult to justify the military effort and spending billions in EU aid to taxpayers at home.
The most serious allegations of fraud have been lodged in southern Afghanistan, where Karzai would expect strong support from his fellow ethnic Pashtuns, though Kippen said all provinces were affected by the order to recount the 2,500 sites.
Spokesman Fazel Sancharaki said the Abdullah campaign believes 20 percent to 25 percent of polling stations should be voided for fraud. "We expected much more" than 10 percent, Sancharaki said.
A Karzai campaign spokesman, Waheed Omar, said his campaign has not seen a formal order from either of the election commissions about the recount.
"Obviously we hope that the ECC will act transparently in this, and if they are agreed to do so they will have to give us clarification as to why and how they are doing that," Omar said.
The ECC has already thrown out ballots from 83 polling stations because of fraud allegations, all in areas of support for Karzai.
Two-man runoff possible
The country's election commission originally hoped to declare a certified winner this week, but claims of ballot-stuffing and phantom voters have pushed that timeline back weeks, leaving the country in political limbo at a time the Taliban is unleashing a record number of attacks.
Thousands of fake ballots were submitted across the country, and returns showed Karzai winning 100 percent of the vote in some districts.
The most recent partial count of the preliminary results has Karzai leading with 54 percent to former foreign minister Abdullah's 28 percent. If enough votes are eliminated for fraud complaints, Karzai's tally could fall below the 50-percent threshold, forcing a two-man runoff. The current results reflect 93 percent of polling stations, with 5 percent of the votes still to be counted and the remaining 2 percent quarantined for suspected fraud.
Grant said it was not clear how much longer the ECC and IEC would need to complete the fraud investigations and recounts, though he has hinted that weeks of work remain.
"We need to be thorough about the job that we need to do," he said.
Afghan election officials said they would comply with the order, but declined to estimate how long the recounts would take.
Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the Afghan commission ordered to recount the votes, said it is up to the ECC to give a timeline because the complaints commission will oversee the process.