Almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes cast in Afghanistan's parliamentary election last month have been thrown out because of fraud, election commission officials said while releasing provisional results Wednesday.
Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission said it had ruled 1.3 million votes invalid and that ballots collected from 2,543 of the 17,744 polling stations which opened for the Sept. 18 vote had been disqualified.
That means about 23 percent of ballots were discarded because of ballot-box stuffing or rejiggered totals.
However, election officials called the vote a success because they were able to catch the fraud.
The number of fraudulent ballots indicates that cheating was pervasive in a vote that many hoped would show the government's commitment to reform.
The election went ahead despite a threat by the Taliban to disrupt the poll.
Thousands of complaints It is possible that those living in provinces with a large number of disqualified ballots could claim that their legitimate ballots were not counted. And in ethnically mixed provinces, there is a chance that the invalidations may favor one ethnic group over another.
A five-member fraud investigation panel also still needs to rule on more than 2,000 complaints deemed serious enough to affect results before they can be finalized. It was unclear when that would happen.
Around 40 percent of complaints received relate to polling irregularities, the ECC says, and some 17 percent to violence and intimidation. Other gripes included problems accessing polling sites and counting irregularities, the watchdog said.
Despite the level of complaints and disqualified votes, there have been few calls to invalidate the entire election or for another vote to be held.
Preliminary results were due on Oct. 8 but were pushed back twice by the IEC to allow for more verifications and recounts. Final results are not likely to be released until well into next month, after the U.N.-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) sifts through thousands of complaints.
The ECC also has the authority to invalidate more votes.
Some candidates may also be disqualified outright if the anti-fraud panel finds that they were behind attempts to manipulate results. The election commission has referred 224 candidates to the panel for investigation because they appeared to be involved in cheating, said Election commission chairman Fazel Ahmad Manawi. About 2,500 candidates ran across 34 provinces.
The commission had originally reported a lower turnout figure of about 4.3 million. That earlier figure was based on election day estimates and revised up when the actual tallies came in, said Abdul Ahmadzai, the commission's chief electoral officer.
Asked why the number of disqualified votes matched so neatly with the revised turnout figure, Ahmadzai said it showed that the 4.3 million figure was probably more accurate and that the tallies were later inflated.
Calculating an exact turnout is difficult because Afghanistan has no electoral register.
The IEC says there were around 11.4 million eligible voters on Sept. 18 but that figure only represented the number of ballot papers sent to polling stations. Many say the real number of voters was probably closer to 10.5 million.
Implications for war, Karzai
The credibility of the vote will weigh heavily when U.S. President Barack Obama reviews Washington's Afghan war strategy in December amid mounting violence, rising troop casualties and sagging public support.
Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. diplomat in Afghanistan, commended the IEC for "significant improvements" introduced since last year's presidential poll but said perpetrators of fraud had to be brought to justice.
"The number of votes invalidated and identified by the IEC point to considerable fraud and electoral irregularities on election day," de Mistura said in a statement.
"We are now looking attentively at this next stage of the process, which should also ensure that those who are proven to have committed fraudulent acts are held accountable."
It was not immediately clear what the results released Wednesday would mean for the makeup of the 249-member lower house of the Afghan parliament.
Though Karzai has repeatedly bypassed the parliament by issuing laws by decree, the legislative body also is one of the few checks on Karzai's power. A legislature loaded with Karzai allies could make it easier for the president to avoid opposition.