Afghan Exit Poll Projects Karzai as Big Winner

An exit poll conducted by an American non-profit group found that interim Afghan president Hamid Karzai won Saturday's first-ever presidential election with the outright majority needed to avoid a second round.

The survey by the International Republican Institute (search), which seeks to promote democracy abroad, found Karzai ahead of second place finisher Yunus Qanooni (search) by 43 percentage points.

The group would not give specific vote totals for either man, nor did it release supporting data. But it said that Karzai was well over the 50 percent mark necessary to avoid a runoff.

Western officials had said earlier there would be no exit polling, in part out of concern that Afghans would misinterpret pollsters' questions as intimidation. The survey was kept under wraps until after the vote.

"We want to give a measure of confidence in how this process proceeded, and eventually the result," said Kent Patton, a senior adviser on Afghanistan for the group. IRI, which also sent a 13-member observer team to monitor the election, is closely tied to the Republican Party although it has no direct affiliation with the GOP.

The group based its findings, which organizers called "preliminary," on 10,050 survey responses called in on satellite and cellular phones from its workers in the field. They hope to eventually get some 15,000 responses.

The group said, however, that it believes the results so far to be accurate within 1-2 percentage points of what the official results will be.

The survey was financed by the U.S. Agency for International Development (search).

IRI contracted a Boston-based survey research firm, Williams & Associates (search), to send 200 two-person teams across Afghanistan, including some of the most remote areas in this nation of 25 million people. In all, they sent teams to 26 of the country's 34 provinces.

The poll may offer the only indication for some time of who might have won. Electoral officials say they won't start counting actual ballots for several days and a final result may not be in until Oct. 30.

Organizers did not name the third place candidate, but said he received 5 percent of the vote. Eleven minor candidates each received less than one percent.

There were 18 candidates on the ballot, though two pulled out two days before the election.

The remaining 15 opposition candidates boycotted the vote, saying the ink used to mark people's thumbs and prevent them from voting twice was flawed. Several have since backed down, but the crisis remains unresolved.

International observers and the independent electoral commission have both said the problem was not widespread and did not warrant a boycott. The commission has agreed, however, to form an independent panel to investigate the problems.