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Afghan Runoff Vote Could Be Delayed To 2010, Official Says

Daoud Ali Najafi: "This scenario should not happen."

Daoud Ali Najafi: "This scenario should not happen."

KABUL (Reuters) -- A run-off presidential election, if needed in Afghanistan, must take place before the third week of October or it will have to be delayed until winter weather lifts next year, a senior election official has said.

Daoud Ali Najafi, chief electoral officer of Afghanistan, urged a UN-backed watchdog to speed up a fraud investigation in order to avoid having to delay a potential second-round poll until after winter snow has melted in mainly rural Afghanistan.

"Based on the climate situation in Afghanistan, if we could not have a runoff in the third week of October, then it's not possible for us to have a runoff this year," he told Reuters.

"Because this scenario should not happen, we strongly request the ECC to speed up the process," he said, referring to the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission, which has ordered a recount of 10 percent of polling stations' votes to investigate fraud.

On September 16, Najafi's Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced that incumbent Hamid Karzai had secured 54.6 percent of votes in a preliminary tally of the August 20 election -- enough to be declared the winner in a single round.

The result cannot be declared official until after the recount ordered by the ECC, a separate body which says it found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud."

Should enough ballots be thrown out because of fraud that Karzai ends up with less than 50 percent of the total, the president's victory would be overturned and a runoff would have to be held against his main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah.

Western diplomats have expressed concern that delaying a second round until next year could increase instability.

Najafi said it would be easier to have a second round before the winter if the ECC were to allow a count of random samples of suspect ballots, a faster process than requiring each ballot be checked individually.

The ECC has not publicly said whether it would accept a faster recount based on random samples.

Fraud 'Exaggerated'

Karzai has acknowledged that fraud took place in the election, but says the extent of it was exaggerated. His campaign says it does not believe fraud can be found to have taken place on a big enough scale to overturn his victory.

His main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, says fraud was massive and he expects the recount to show a second round is needed.

A European Union monitoring group says as many as 1.5 million votes may be "suspicious", including 1.1 million votes cast for Karzai -- more than a third of his total.

Najafi has said in the past that the EU monitoring group overstepped its authority by going public with it findings without waiting for the complaints body to look into fraud. He repeated his criticism of the EU group.

"If they are professional and have at least observed many elections in the world then they understand what they should do," he said.

The IEC has faced criticism from Karzai's rival, especially Abdullah, for showing bias towards the government, something Najafi rejected and said "really, really worried" him.

The international community needed to show more appreciation for his commission's efforts, the first time an Afghan-run body has taken primary responsibility for running an election.

"It's very unfair. It's the first election conducted by an Afghan body and the international community should appreciate these efforts because we are going towards a more sustainable and accountable way," he said.