KABUL: Election officials overseeing Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power sifted through scores of fraud complaints Sunday as they began a lengthy vote count, after insurgents killed at least 50 people on polling day.
The final result in the runoff presidential election is not due for several weeks, and international concerns have focused on the risk of a disputed outcome as the two candidates started to trade fraud allegations.
More than 50 people were killed in separate Taliban strikes Saturday, officials said, when more than 7 million voters cast their ballot in the contest between former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and ex-World Bank economist Ashraf Ghani.
The deaths included five election workers killed when their bus was hit by a roadside bomb in Samangan province, and five members of one family who died when a Taliban rocket hit a house near a polling station.
Eleven voters in the western province of Herat had their fingers – which were dipped in ink to register their ballot – cut off by insurgents.
More than 70 militants were also killed in fighting during the day, according to the Interior Ministry.
The White House praised voters’ courage and called the elections “a significant step forward on Afghanistan’s democratic path” after the turnout topped 50 percent.
The U.S., along with the U.N., urged the two candidates not to make unproven fraud allegations, but both Abdullah and Ghani raised the issue immediately after polls closed.
“It is win or lose now,” said Kate Clark, director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
“The voting is only one phase of the election, and there is still a lot that could change. Being a good loser doesn’t gain you much here.
“If it is close and fraud looks to have been a lot, and either candidate wants to really make a fuss, then we could be in for months of wrangling.”
The 2009 election, when outgoing President Hamid Karzai retained power, was marred by massive fraud that shook the U.S.-led international effort to develop Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001.
A credible election and a smooth handover of power would be a major achievement for Afghanistan’s backers after 13 years of costly military and civilian assistance.
All foreign combat troops are due to withdraw by the end of this year.
“Allegations of fraud need to be addressed,” U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said. “But the candidates and their supporters should refrain from premature judgements and from criticism that is not supported with clear evidence.”
The preliminary result is due on July 2, before the complaints period begins, and the final result is scheduled for July 22.
“We have urged the candidates to act as statesmen, future presidents, rather than people simply in a competition with each other,” said Nicholas Haysom, the deputy chief of the U.N. mission. He called for candidates to “exercise patience” as the count got underway.
The Electoral Complaints Commission registered about 275 complaints by Sunday morning.
“There were violation cases where the supporters of the presidential candidates forced voters to vote for a certain candidate,” said spokesman Mohammad Nader Mohsini.
“Supporters were also offering money for voters to vote for a certain candidate.”
He said allegations had also been raised of interference by election officials and the security forces.
Both candidates swiftly alleged fraud after the closure of the polls.
“We know there has been fraud, you have seen it, we have seen it,” Abdullah said.
Ghani called for a full investigation into vote-rigging, saying “unfortunately there were cases of security forces involved in fraud, we have the evidence.”
Ahead of Saturday’s ballot, the Taliban threatened to kill voters and officials, saying the election was an U.S. plot “to impose their stooges.”
The two candidates came top of an eight-man field in the April first-round election, triggering the runoff as neither reached the 50 percent threshold needed for outright victory. Abdullah got 45 percent of the vote in April with Ghani on 31.6 percent.
The Italian-run Emergency NGO, which runs clinics in Afghanistan, received twice the average number of patients Saturday.