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Afghan President Widens Election Lead Amid Fraud Claims

President Hamid Karzai looks more likely to pass the 50 percent barrier needed to win outright.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has increased his lead over his main challenger Abdullah Abdullah, election officials have announced. The issue of election fraud possibly tilting the vote, however, continues to dominate Afghan political debate.

With 17 percent of ballots counted from the August 20 poll, Karzai has opened a lead of nearly 10 percentage points, inching him closer to the outright majority needed for a first-round win, but still far to early to call.

The new figures indicated Karzai received 43 to 45 percent of the vote, while Abdullah took 34 to 35 percent.

The new numbers come just a day after the Independent Election Commission gave its first indication of how the presidential poll went. Based on 10 percent of the total vote count, Karzai and Abdullah were neck and neck, with Karzai claiming just over 40 percent and Abdullah garnering nearly 39 percent.

Even as results come in, Abdullah has warned against predicting the election's outcome considering the number of outstanding allegations of fraud.

"Until all the allegations and claims and complaints are...addressed, those we have registered with the Election Complaints Commission, the results will not be valid," he said.

Abdullah's concerns have been echoed by other presidential candidates, six of whom have complained of widespread irregularities that favored Karzai on election day.

The Election Complaints Commission has more than 750 complaints of fraud to examine, and at least 70 are considered especially serious.

How Much Fraud Is Too Much?

Concern has lingered over the fairness of the election, despite initial positive reactions by Western observers.

"In the end, elections like this are going to be subjective. Everyone knows that an election in Afghanistan was going to have a certain amount of fraudulent voting. There is no way to avoid this," says Marvin Weinbaum, an Afghan election observer with Democracy International.

"The question has been all along: would that be of such a scale, would it be of such a dimension, that subjectively the public would say -- and the internationally community would eventually have to eventually say -- that the fraud that took place was too much."

Preliminary results are expected to be released on September 3, and official final results are expected on September 17. If neither candidate wins an outright majority, a second-round runoff will be held between the top two finishers.

If the election does lead to a runoff, experts differ over whether such an event would undermine Afghan stability. Some observers voice concern that another vote would only further divide the country.

Weinbaum suggests a larger role for the international community in monitoring any runoff election. He points out that this election was handled almost exclusively by the Afghans themselves.

Afghan officials insist that methods are in place to ensure fraud does not taint the overall result.