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Watchdog Alters Afghan Recount Rules, Member Quits

KABUL (Reuters) -- Afghanistan's election watchdog changed its fraud-tallying rules for the second time in less than a week on October 12, switching back to a formula that lowers the chance of overturning President Hamid Karzai's first-round win.

In a further sign of disarray, one of only two Afghans on the five-member Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) abruptly resigned. The member, seen by diplomats as a supporter of Karzai, said the commissioners had been subject to foreign interference.

The ECC announced the change in its rules just days before it is due to present the results of its fraud probe, which will determine whether Karzai wins in the first round or needs to face his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah, in a run-off.

Under the new rules the commission will not take into account which candidate it finds benefitted most from any fraud.

The change, described as correcting a "mistake," effectively reverts to initial rules announced last week, which were changed mid-week after being criticized for potentially shielding Karzai.

In preliminary results, Karzai won 54.6 percent of the vote. In order to force a second round, the commission would have to find that fraud overwhelmingly benefitted him over other candidates, reducing his share below 50 percent.

Under the new guidelines, the commission has divided suspicious ballots into six categories based on the reason for considering them suspect, and will disqualify the same percentage of ballots for each candidate within each category.

Last week the ECC said it would calculate a different fraud percentage for each candidate, so that candidates who benefitted from more fraud would face a greater penalty. That would have made it easier to conclude that Karzai's supporters were more culpable than his rivals and force a second round.

"It was our mistake in how we interpreted it. We thought we could get more granular, and it turns out that was not the case," the ECC's UN-appointed head Grant Kippen, a Canadian, said of the latest change.

Karzai's rivals say that many of their own genuine ballots are innocently included in suspicious groups, while most of the fraud was committed in the south where Karzai won overwhelmingly.

Under the rules from last week, Karzai could have faced a recount if 520,000 fraudulent ballots in his favour were found.

With the new rules, the commission could find more than a million fake votes and Karzai would still squeak through, depending on the distribution of suspicious ballots in the six groups.

Resignation Damages Trust

The ECC is the final arbiter of fraud in the election, and Western governments are counting on it to come up with a result that Afghans will accept as fair, after it found "clear and convincing evidence of fraud."

Three of its five members were appointed by the United Nations, while the other two are Afghans.

In a blow for the body's credibility, one of the Afghans, Mustafa Barakzai, said he was quitting because he believed foreigners were exerting influence over the body, and without outside meddling, the final result would be ready by now.

"When it was proven to me that there was interference, I decided to leave. If there was no interference [the final result] would not have been delayed," Barakzai told reporters, echoing a criticism Karzai has made that foreigners slowed the process.

Barakzai was appointed to the commission by Afghanistan's Supreme Court. A diplomatic source said he was seen as supporter of Karzai and may have quit ahead of the announcement to avoid being associated with a ruling that would require a second round.

Kippen said: "I don't understand what he's referring to in terms of international interference. It's unfortunate, we wish him well and we'll miss his presence."