THE international community is backtracking on its praise of Afghanistan's elections last week, as evidence and anecdotes of spectacular fraud threaten to undermine it.
Preliminary results yesterday gave incumbent Hamid Karzai a 2 per cent lead on his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. But neither man is close to the 51 per cent needed to win outright in the first round, suggesting a run-off in October.
The results, from only 10 per cent of the votes, comes after days of speculation led by Mr Karzai's campaign manager, Haji Deen Mohammed, who claimed the president had won outright with almost 70 per cent.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC), branded "incompetent and corrupt" moments before the announcement, said 524,444 votes showed Mr Karzai had 41 per cent and Dr Abdullah 39 per cent.
As polls closed on Thursday, Western politicians congratulated the people of Afghanistan on what Barack Obama described as a "successful election".
British diplomats claimed it was a "bad day for the Taleban," – but the credibility of such comments is in doubt as six leading candidates yesterday warned that widespread fraud could spark more violence.
Turnout as low as 8 per cent in provinces such as Helmand, where the insurgency is strongest, suggested the Taleban succeeded in disrupting the polls.
Senior western diplomats agree that most of the fraud appears to have been by Karzai supporters, but most of the polling stations where large-scale irregularities are alleged were beyond the reach of Afghan or international observers.
The European Union observer mission visited less than 5 per cent of the polling stations, most of them in the safest areas.
"It will be very difficult to pin-point widespread fraud with any accuracy," said John Dempsey, Afghanistan director of the US Institute of Peace.
The IEC figures were released a few hours after Dr Abdullah vowed at a press conference in his Kabul garden not to let "massive, state-sponsored fraud" sway the outcome. He accused Mr Karzai of trying to "steal the verdict of a nation" and pledged to use every legal channel to challenge the results.
Laughing with contempt at the audacity of the cheating, the former foreign minister
held up a book of ballot papers still bound to their stubs, which were almost all ticked in support of the president. He said three boys had stolen them from a polling station in the south where dozens more were being posted into ballot boxes. He then played covert videos which he said showed a provincial head of the IEC in Ghanzi stuffing ballot boxes with pro-Karzai votes.
"If this wide-scale rigging is ignored, this is the sort of regime that will be imposed on Afghanistan for five years," he said.
Afghan and international journalists chronicled astonishing irregularities across the country. At one polling station, officials said they had taken more than 5,500 votes before breakfast, though there were no voters to be seen.
Dr Abdullah said "state machinery, corruption and incompetence within the IEC" had made the fraud too big for the international community to contain.
The governor of Balkh province said Dr Abdullah, whom he supported, was under pressure from the United States to concede defeat and accept a position in a new Karzai administration.
"The US would much sooner forgive Afghanistan for fraud than endure even more fighting," said a western diplomat.