Page last updated at 14:30 GMT, Monday, 19 October 2009 15:30 UK

Endgame for Afghanistan's elections?

By Lyse Doucet
BBC News, Kabul

An Afghan pedestrian walks in front of a wall of torn posters of presidential and provincial candidates in Kabul on September 24, 2009.
Afghans have waited a long time for the final verdict to be delivered

Nearly two months after millions of Afghans voted for a president, they have at last been informed about the verdict of their ballots.

But it is still not over.

After weeks of delay and mounting tension, Afghanistan's Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) has posted its findings on its website after a complicated and controversial investigation into what the UN has called "widespread" fraud.

It confirms what has been an open secret for many days: that Hamid Karzai scored less than the 50% necessary to avoid a second round with his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah.

But in an election which has turned into a deep political crisis, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) now believes it must have a deciding say.

The two main candidates should face a run-off

When this tangled process began, the ECC, the only electoral body composed of Afghan and foreign representation, was regarded as the "final arbiter".

The IEC's role was to ratify and announce the results.

The IEC is accused by many of being too close to a president who appointed all its commissioners. It now says it needs "a day or two" to examine the details of the ECC report.

One source warned of a possible "train crash". Others are still hoping a compromise can emerge at this critical 11th hour.

'Victory' stolen?

The ECC report focuses on three major areas: a recount and audit of some 10% of suspicious ballot boxes; an investigation into more than 600 allegations of fraud; and the more than 600 ballot boxes that were quarantined.

Sources who have been meeting the president say he insists his victory was stolen in this recount. In the first tally of ballots released in September, he won 54.6% of the vote with his former foreign minister Dr Abdullah trailing with 27.7%.

The president has repeatedly warned foreign countries not to interfere in the election process. Sources say he firmly believes Western countries, in particular the United States and Britain, are conspiring to rob him of victory.

Even my barber tells me people are not having their hair cut because they are holding on to their money, uncertain of the future
Nader Nadery, Free and Fair Election Foundation

Over the past week, there has been a steady stream of visitors to the heavily fortified presidential palace in Kabul, including US Democratic Senator John Kerry who was in Afghanistan at this crucial moment, French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who flew out to try to play a mediating role, and the Afghan-born former US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, who much to the annoyance of US officials, said he had come on a personal basis to help resolve this crisis.

Envoys based in Kabul, including the UN special representative Kai Eide, have also been going in and out of the president's office. Foreign leaders and officials have been working the phones from abroad.

The byword across the international community has been "legitimacy", that the UN-backed election process had to be respected.

Afghan reaction to these protracted and messy delays has ranged from apathy to anger.

"There are only two ways forward," said one Afghan legal expert involved in the process. "There is an election law that must be respected, or there is warlordism" - an allusion to Afghanistan's 30 years of violent conflict.

Sources say the last few days have involved intensive, and at times heated, discussions over the methodology employed to discard fraudulent votes.

The formula employs 17 criteria ranging from "is the same pen and the same tick mark used on successive ballots" to "are the voter registration cards sequential?"

Election 'tragi-comedy'

In recent weeks, the respected international election expert, the UN's Colombian-born Carlos Valenzuela, has shuttled between President Karzai and Dr Abdullah's office, carefully explaining the scientific basis of the methodology deployed in this highly politicised process.

 A file photo taken August 20, 2009 shows an Afghan electoral worker waiting for voters beside empty ballot boxes at a school converted to a polling centre in Kandahar. Afghanistan"s UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC}

The past few weeks in Kabul have been what one diplomat described as a "tragi-comedy" with the ECC announcing, then having to revise, and then explain, repeated missed deadlines for their verdict.

Nader Nadery, who heads the Afghanistan Free and Fair Election Foundation, praised a process as a "strong bold decision to nullify a large number of suspicious ballots for both candidates which shows there is no impunity".

But like many Afghans he expressed concern over a process which had dragged on far too long.

"Even my barber tells me people are not having their hair cut because they are holding on to their money, uncertain of the future."

More consequential and urgent decisions on US troop numbers and vital aid money are also being held up until a "credible" government emerges.

Nation in pain

All eyes now are on the IEC announcement.

But the next stage will be no easier. A second round of voting is feared by Afghans and foreigners alike. There is acute concern over whether a second round could result in a lower turnout, greater violence and even less legitimacy.

As one observer put it, the nation would "writhe in pain".

It should be held within two weeks after the formal announcement of results, but winter is fast closing in in many parts of the country.

There has been extensive discussion about whether a second round is constitutionally required and if it could be replaced by negotiations to form some kind of "power-sharing" arrangement between Hamid Karzai and Dr Abdullah.

Their personal relationship has come under considerable strain in recent months, with Dr Abdullah accusing his rival of personal responsibility for "massive state-engineered fraud".

Dr Abdullah has been insisting on the announcement of results before he will engage in negotiations. President Karzai has been insisting he wants to be declared the winner and then he will forge an inclusive government.

Across Afghanistan, and in many capitals, there is a profound hope Afghan politicians can work this out peacefully, for the sake of a country facing huge challenges.

But security is tight in Kabul, with armoured vehicles at key intersections, just in case they don't.

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