Afghan election marred by fraud

KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan's leading election watchdog expressed deepening alarm Sunday at reports it was amassing of vote-rigging and bloodshed that claimed at least two dozen lives in the nation's second legislative election since the 2001 U.S. invasion.

With elections officials beginning the laborious process of certifying votes in the closely watched races, independent observers raised new warnings about the scale of fraud, intimidation and unrest that could undermine the credibility of the new Parliament.

"We are more concerned because we are collecting more information," said Nader Nadery, head of the Free and Fair Election Foundation, a coalition of civic groups that fielded some 7,000 observers during Saturday's elections to the 249-seat lower house of Parliament.

Nadery, whose organization alleged extensive ballot-stuffing and security problems almost immediately after the polls closed Saturday, declined to elaborate on the new data that the group is reviewing until a news conference set for today.

"I'm encouraged by the turnout compared to what was expected," Nadery said, referring to the official initial estimate of 4 million. About 6 million voters turned out in last year's fraud-affected presidential election, which secured a second four-year term for President Hamid Karzai.

Hamid Obaidi, a spokesman for the Electoral Complaints Commission, the body charged with adjudicating vote-rigging allegations, said complaints are running at "the same" level as they were in the presidential election. He declined to elaborate, saying the figure would be released today.

Karzai and his U.S.-led allies have portrayed the elections as a success, hailing the voters who defied threats by the Taliban and allied extremist groups.

The Karzai government and the Obama administration, which has sent some 50,000 additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan since taking office in 2009, saw the elections as a chance to reclaim some of the legitimacy they lost in the massive fraud that scarred Karzai's re-election.

"The people of Afghanistan have shown courage and participated in this election and made it a success," declared Fazil Ahmad Manawi, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission. "We do accept shortfalls in the process. In a country like Afghanistan, we should not expect miracles."

The U.S. and its NATO allies appeared to be anxious to show progress in Afghanistan in the face of growing opposition among Americans to the increasingly costly war, said Thomas Ruttig of the independent Afghanistan Analysts Network. President Obama plans to begin drawing down the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan next July.

"I find that a little bit optimistic and driven by the domestic agenda and not by the reality in Afghanistan," Ruttig said. "I think the institutions in Afghanistan generally are too weak and I don't see a step forward in democratization."