KABUL, Aug 22 – EU observers on Saturday welcomed Afghanistan’s elections as generally fair, but not universally free as speculation mounted over claims about who won the presidency and the possibility of a run-off.
The top contenders in the race both claim they were heading for victory after the second ever presidential election, which was acclaimed by the West but undermined by growing complaints of ballot-stuffing and low turnout.
But definitive results are not due until next month, leading Afghan and Western officials to call for calm as President Hamid Karzai declared a win and his main rival, ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, insisted he was ahead.
The election may have been hailed a success in foreign capitals, which have pumped billions into Afghanistan since the 2001 US-led invasion and deployed 100,000 troops to contain a Taliban insurgency but concerns have mounted.
"Free was not the case in some parts of the territory due to terror installed," the head of the EU election observation mission, Philippe Morillon, told a Kabul news conference.
"Generally what we have observed was considered by our observers with our methodology good and fair," he added, but reserved judgment on whether the polls were credible, saying "a lot of complaints" would take time to evaluate.
Other independent observers warned that turnout in Taliban strongholds in the south may have been as low as 10 and 25-30 percent for the hotspots of Kandahar and Helmand respectively.
A foreign official said that the Election Complaints Commission had so far received 100 formal complaints about irregularities, including "allegations of ballot-stuffing in Kandahar".
US President Barack Obama hailed the elections as an "important step forward" for the war-torn nation and his special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, was conducting a series of meetings.
Holbrooke, who arrived on Wednesday for one his longest visits since taking office, held meetings with diplomats and officials, and Friday met Karzai, Abdullah and runner-up Ashraf Ghani, said a US embassy spokeswoman.
An energetic campaign by Abdullah and his claims of success, coupled with poor turnout in Karzai’s powerbase in the south, have boosted prospects of a run-off, which would take place in early October.
"The question now is whether Karzai, who controls the electoral commission, will be willing to accept a second round. That was one of the issues of his meeting with Holbrooke," said one diplomat on condition of anonymity.
Western backers of Karzai’s government have urged presidential candidates to refrain from premature announcements, respect the electoral process and for their supporters to keep calm.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said partial results would be released from Tuesday, but that the victor will not be announced until September.
Other observers have raised concern about the length of time before the results are announced, warning this might stoke tensions.
"One way to release that kind of political tension is to provide the public with information about election returns," said Glenn Cowan from US-based election monitors Democracy International.
The EU observers also raised concerns about the IEC’s independence, quoting reports that the commission exerted pressure on its staff in a manner which raised questions about its impartiality.
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.
Abdullah followed comments by his campaign office that he had 63 percent compared with 31 percent for Karzai, saying: "The country would like to see a change, this is an opportunity for it."
Abdullah has a powerbase in the north and Karzai in the south, divided among the Tajiks and the Pashtuns — the two largest ethnic groups in Afghanistan, which is still suffering from decades of war and devastating civil conflict.
Abdullah’s office has lodged 40 complaints so far, mostly alleging local officials commanded people to vote for Karzai.