KABUL, Aug 21 – Contenders in the race to become Afghanistan’s next president claimed Friday to be heading for victory in polls acclaimed by the West but undermined by complaints of ballot-stuffing and low turnout.
Election officials called for calm ahead of definitive results next month as President Hamid Karzai declared a decisive win and his main rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, insisted that he was in fact ahead.
"It is the job of the election commission to release the results," said Independent Election Commission (IEC) official Zekria Barakzai, calling on campaign managers to exercise caution and patience.
US President Barack Obama, NATO and many other Western backers of Karzai’s government welcomed Thursday’s election, which although subject to sporadic attacks was spared a feared full-scale Taliban onslaught.
Barakzai, the IEC’s deputy chief electoral officer, said ballot counting was complete and partial results would be released from Tuesday.
IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor said the victor would not be known officially before early next month.
"We are trying to do it as fast as possible, but according to our timetable we will announce preliminary results on September 3 and not before," Noor said.
Adrian Edwards, spokesman for the United Nations which has been supporting the election process, said: "There’s no result until the IEC announces a result. Anything else is speculation."
But Karzai’s campaign chief said early results gave the incumbent more than 50 percent — a big enough lead to avert a run-off vote.
"From what we have obtained so far, we can claim that there is no need for a run-off and we can claim that we’re in the lead," said Din Mohammad.
"We have got this figure from our observers at the (voting) sites," he said.
But a spokesman for the Abdullah campaign also claimed to be ahead based on partial results.
"The results that we have received from our observers from the sites tell us we have 63 percent, Hamid Karzai has 31 percent," said the spokesman, Sayed Aqa Fazil Sancharaki.
There are concerns that dissatisfaction with the outcome of the election could spark protests, and Abdullah’s office has lodged 40 complaints so far.
Most of them allege that local officials commanded people to vote for Karzai, along with claims of ballot-box tampering to favour the president’s bid for another five years in office.
Another candidate, former World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani, said Karzai’s government had shown "that in its relentless desire for power, it would hold no law sacred and violate all legal and constitutional norms."
Guarded by 300,000 foreign and local forces, Afghans voted on Thursday to elect a new president and 34 provincial councils.
Western officials had played down prospects for entirely free and fair elections given reports of vote-buying and Karzai’s reliance on warlords.
Each camp has its powerbase in different parts of the country and among different ethnic groups. But both said they were collating figures from all over the country.
Under election regulations, representatives of all the candidates were given immediate access to results as counting was completed at each polling station.
The claims and counter-claims came as election officials said turnout in the poll, a key test of Afghanistan’s progress eight years after the Taliban regime was ousted, was expected to be 40-50 percent.
Turnout in the first presidential election in 2004 was 70 percent, and this time round the Taliban waged a fierce campaign of pre-election intimidation and attacks designed to make voters stay at home.
The tactics appeared to have depressed voter participation especially in the southern insurgent strongholds, threatening to undermine the credibility of the results and the legitimacy of the victor.
One foreign analyst who declined to be identified said that turnout in the former Taliban capital Kandahar may have been as low as 10 percent, and in the violence-wracked province of Helmand around 25-30 percent.
Bomb blasts and rocket attacks across the country on Election Day left 26 Afghan security forces and civilians dead, and 11 election workers were also killed in the run-up to Thursday, according to authorities.