Ballots from about 10 percent of voting centers in last month's parliamentary election have been disqualified by fraud, Afghan election officials said Monday in a move likely to affect results in a number of volatile provinces.
The Sept. 18 poll is being watched for signs that the government of President Hamid Karzai is committed to reform after a fraud-marred presidential election last year prompted many of Karzai's Western allies to threaten to pull troops and aid. However, the pursuit of a clean result also risks inflaming ethnic tensions in tumultuous provinces if ballots are voided that leave certain tribes feeling that their votes didn't count.
Ballots from 571 centers have been nullified and votes from another 1,177 centers are being audited and recounted, said Noor Mohammad Noor, a spokesman for the election commission. A total of 5,510 centers were reported open on polling day.
It was not clear how many ballots were affected by the commission's decision. Voting centers ranged in size, with between 1,200 to 7,200 ballots available. About 4.3 million ballots were cast countrywide.
More than 50 centers were excluded in each of three provinces _ Paktika in the east, Kandahar in the south and Herat in west, Noor said. Paktika had the most number of centers disqualified, he said. Noor did not give an exact figure, but said it was fewer than 100 centers.
Paktika, which borders turbulent areas of northwest Pakistan, was difficult for observers to access because of the danger of traveling to much of the province. It was unclear how many people actually voted in the province, which was also the subject of Taliban threats on election day.
The majority of the rest of the exclusions fell into 13 provinces: Wardak, Paktya, Nuristan, Nangarhar, Kunduz, Khost, Ghor, Ghazni, Faryab, Farah, Baghlan, Badakhshan and Badghis, he said. Afghanistan has 34 provinces in all.
Centers were disqualified because of results that showed the hallmark of fraud, such as recording more ballots cast than were sent to polling stations, or showing 95 percent of ballots cast for one candidate, Noor said.
"These were issues which were not allowed through our regulations and our policies," he explained. It's a departure for the commission from last year's presidential poll _ when Afghan election officials abandoned exactly these safeguards to let millions of suspicious ballots enter the tally. About a third of the ballots were later thrown out after a U.N.-backed fraud watchdog ordered an investigation into the suspicious results.
The leadership of the election commission has changed since and international observers have said they believe there is a commitment to a fair tally by the new group, even though many candidates have been trying to pressure them to produce favorable results in their individual races. This year's elections have about 2,500 candidates vying for 249 parliamentary seats.
The tally has gone slowly, with each week bringing a few more partial results. The election commission now plans to release full preliminary results on Wednesday, after delaying the announcement twice.
But full preliminary results are likely to only be the beginning of the dispute over which votes should count. Fraud investigators will need to rule on more than 2,000 complaints considered serious enough to affect results before they can be finalized. Those decisions are not expected until the end of October at the earliest.
The election commission has also told fraud investigators to look into 200 candidates may have cheated or been responsible for misconduct on election day, Noor said.