Chances for a conclusive result to Afghanistan’s landmark election were on firmer ground Tuesday after President Hamid Karzai’s main challenger backed away from a boycott, indicating he’d accept an independent commission to probe vote-fraud charges.
Although no ballots from Saturday’s election have been counted yet, the U.S.-backed interim leader is the clear favorite to win. But his ability to consolidate his rule over the fractious, war-ravaged nation would be undermined if the opposition refuses to acknowledge the vote results.
The tally was to begin Wednesday at the earliest, and final results were not expected until late October.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, the first foreign leader to visit since the election, all but declared Karzai the winner, while an exit poll conducted by an American group closely tied to the U.S. Republican Party projected Karzai would win with the outright majority needed to avoid a second round.
Projections favor Karzai
The survey by the International Republican Institute said Karzai would finish ahead of his main challenger, ethnic Tajik candidate Yunus Qanooni, by an overwhelming 43 percentage points. The group did not release a breakdown of its data.
Qanooni announced Monday he would accept an investigation by an independent panel of election experts into opposition complaints that the supposedly indelible ink used to mark voters’ thumbs in some polling stations could be rubbed off, allowing some to vote more than once.
The announcement followed similar statements Sunday by Massooda Jalal, the only female presidential hopeful, and ethnic Hazara candidate Mohammed Mohaqeq.
“I don’t want to be against the election and I appreciate the good will of the people of Afghanistan,” Qanooni said. “I want to prove to the people of Afghanistan that the national interest is my highest interest.”
He said he made his decision after a meeting with U.N. representative Jean Arnault and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad.
Independent review panel established
The announcements were a victory for election organizers, who agreed to set up the panel Sunday in hopes it would end the crisis that emerged when all 15 opposition candidates declared the boycott while voting was underway Saturday.
The election has been hailed as a success by U.N. officials, Bush and other world leaders. International electoral observers have criticized the 15, saying their demand to nullify the vote was unjustified.
Schroeder said the poll “was a great step toward democracy and stability” and predicted a Karzai win. “It is my opinion that he will do it, and in the first round,” the German leader said.
A high voter turnout in Afghanistan, which never before has tasted democracy, and a failure of Taliban rebels to launch a massive attack have also been held up as proof of success.
Karzai said Monday on NBC’s “Today” show that voters demonstrated “very, very great enthusiasm. “People braved attacks by terrorists and went to the election,” he said.
Karzai said the polls should be a slap in the face to Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers, and “show that people don’t want them, that the people want a different life.”
“He must be trying to hide even in a tighter place than he was a few days ago. We will find him one day, sooner or later,” Karzai added.
Rumsfeld praises ‘enormous accomplishment’
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld also praised the elections as an “enormous accomplishment” and voiced his hope that the January vote in Iraq will be an equal success.
“It is not an easy task to turn the dictatorship, as in the case of Afghanistan, and it won’t be an easy task in Iraq,” Rumsfeld said in Macedonia after making an unannounced visit to Iraq on Sunday.
In the latest in a series of minor attacks, at least five rockets slammed into Kabul not far from the U.S. Embassy on Monday, killing a 16-year-old Afghan and damaging a house, officials and witnesses said.
Boxes of ballots, some arriving by mule, were not expected to finish reaching counting centers until Tuesday at the earliest. About 10.5 million registration cards were handed out for the election.
The numbers of received ballots will be checked against a list of votes cast to ensure the boxes have not been stuffed with fraudulent votes, U.N. officials said. Then, ballots from various districts will be mixed together so no one knows which area favored which candidate.
Actual counting may not start until Wednesday or Thursday, election organizers say. Aykut Tavsel, an electoral spokesman, said candidates have until Tuesday evening to file formal complaints, and that the commission doesn’t want to start the count until after it has reviewed them.
Possible Taliban reconciliation seen
The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. David Barno, told The Associated Press the election could sound the rebels’ death knell, and that Taliban leaders might “eventually look for ways to reconcile with the government that comes in.”
The independent commission investigating the balloting will include former Canadian diplomat Craig Jenness and Staffan Darnolf, a Swedish election expert. The third member was yet to be announced, officials said.
In Washington, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice predicted that “this election is going to be judged legitimate,” adding, “I’m just certain of it.”
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder also said he thought Karzai was likely to emerge victorious.
“It is my opinion that he will do it, and in the first round,” the German leader said in a joint news conference with Karzai after meeting with German soldiers who are part of the 9,000-strong NATO-led peacekeeping force.