By Jessica Donati
KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's independent election watchdog blamed the government on Sunday for failing to prepare the ground for next year's presidential election, and an opposition leader accused President Hamid Karzai of trying to influence the vote.
Next year, millions of Afghans will vote in what is seen as the most important election in Afghanistan since the U.S.-led war against Taliban insurgents began 12 years ago.
Karzai is barred from running by the constitution, but months ahead of the vote, controversy has already emerged over his role in the process and the allocation of voter cards.
On Sunday, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) said about a fifth of votes cast in favor of candidates as part of this month's registration process could not be verified.
"They (the government) failed in their mission," said IEC spokesman Noor Mohammad Noor, adding that millions of cards were not electronically registered, leaving the system vulnerable to manipulation. "We should have started the voter registration process from zero."
Under Afghan rules, candidates had to collect 100,000 voter cards to prove they had a support base, fuelling a black market trade in votes. The quota was then slashed by the watchdog because many voter cards could not be verified.
The NATO-led force hopes next year's vote will be credible enough to mark the country's first democratic transfer of power before most foreign troops pull out by the end of 2014.
But observers are concerned about a repeat of the widescale fraud seen in the last presidential election in 2009. Critics also believe Karzai seeks to retain a hand in Afghan politics even after the end of his tenure, a charge he denies.
Noor said the IEC had made several requests to the Afghan government to start the process from scratch and to provide electronic identification cards to all voters. The Afghan government was not immediately available for comment.
Noor said only about 80 percent of cards could be accounted for, while a further three million unregistered but usable voter cards were in circulation from previous elections.
Speaking to Reuters on Sunday, opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah said he met Karzai a day earlier to share his concerns.
"The scenario in which fraud decides the future of the country is very damaging... I mentioned how critical, how crucial it is that he remains neutral," Abdullah, who came second in the 2009 elections, told Reuters.
"Whether it happens or not is a different issue... There has been meddling so far."
(Additional reporting by Adbul Aziz Ibrahimi; Editing by Maria Golovnina and Mike Collett-White)