Karzai's top rival to accept U.N. findings

Candidates claim fraud occurred in Afghanistan's presidential elections

October 12, 2004|By Paul Watson | Paul Watson,LOS ANGELES TIMES

KABUL, Afghanistan -- Presidential candidate Yunis Qanooni, the chief rival of incumbent Hamid Karzai, agreed yesterday to drop his protest of Afghanistan's landmark elections and accept a U.N. panel's verdict on whether there were substantial irregularities in the vote.

Qanooni was among 15 candidates who said they would reject the results of Saturday's election because they claimed it was marred by widespread fraud. But in a meeting with U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad yesterday, Qanooni agreed to accept the findings of a three-member United Nations commission that will investigate the allegations.

"To respect the will of millions of Afghans, and to go along with our national interests, I will accept the results of the elections after the investigation is launched," Qanooni told reporters.

Abdul Latif Pedram, another leading candidate, accused Qanooni of caving in to U.S. pressure and breaking ranks with the other candidates in exchange for a role in the new government, expected to be led by Karzai.

"Mr. Qanooni hasn't announced that he is going to switch sides yet, but from the reports that we have from sources inside the meeting today, it looks as if Qanooni is going to switch sides and drop out as a candidate," Pedram said. "We have very good proof for this."

Qanooni, who previously served as education minister under Karzai, denied he had made any deal.

"No one has offered me a post, and I have never spoken about it with anyone," he said. "And I have never demanded such a thing."

Millions of Afghans defied extremists' threats of violence and voted Saturday in the country's first democratic election for president. The vote was largely peaceful. But some people may have been able to cast more than one ballot because, in some polling stations, the ink that was supposed to be indelible and applied to voters' thumbs to prevent repeat voting easily rubbed off or was not used.

Opposition candidates also charged that local police and election officials in rural areas were instructing illiterate voters to mark their ballots for Karzai.

"People came out to vote, not to see fake activities and fraud, but to see the truth," Qanooni repeated yesterday. "And unfortunately they saw fake activities and fraud, like the ink problem. Illiterate people were deceived to vote [for] someone who they didn't want to vote [for]."

The United Nations named Canadian diplomat Craig Jenness and Swedish election administration specialist Staffan Darnolf to the investigating commission yesterday. The European Union will nominate the third member.

The joint Afghan-U.N. body that organized the election has told investigators to focus first on issues that may require a specific ballot box to be set aside as vote-counters work on other ballot boxes.

"This will allow the two exercises -- counting and investigation -- to proceed simultaneously," the election organizing body said in a statement.

The joint body will issue a final statement on the election results once it reviews the unofficial count and the panel's report on the investigation, which will also be made public. The ballot-counting is expected to last a few weeks, but a trend is likely to emerge by the end of next week.

After Saturday's boycott call, foreign observers said there were not sufficient irregularities to invalidate the election. There were only 230 foreign monitors to watch 5,000 polling stations. The monitors were restricted mainly to cities because of fears of violence in the countryside, where the majority of fraud and intimidation allegations were raised.

But foreign monitors have "carefully received testimony from people who were not in the cities," said Francesc Vendrell, the European Union's special envoy to Afghanistan.

"I am not prone to call a black cat white," he told reporters. "We literally went trying to search for evidence of intimidation and violence. We found very little indeed.

"I'm not saying that we found everything -- most likely not. But what I think is the case is that most people were able to cast their votes freely and therefore to choose the person that they want to be their president for the coming five years."

Vendrell predicted that the main presidential candidates will eventually join Qanooni in supporting the investigation.

"In politics, never does not mean never," he said.

"In Afghan politics, never can only mean after a short time. So let us hope that this is not the final view of the opposition candidates."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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