Afghan fraud panel disqualifies 19 candidates

The watchdog panel charged with rooting out fraud in Afghanistan's recent parliamentary election disqualified 19 candidates Sunday who had been announced as winners in preliminary results.

It was not immediately clear if the disqualifications would affect the power dynamic in the 249-seat lower house of the Afghan legislature. Most of the 2,500 candidates ran as independents, many of them with more of an eye toward accruing power in their local provinces than weighing in on President Hamid Karzai's policies.

The Sept. 18 vote is being watched carefully by Karzai's western allies for signs that the Afghan president is committed to reforming his corruption-ridden government. The poll is the first since a fraud-marred presidential poll last year nearly undermined the legitimacy of Karzai's government and pushed some NATO countries to threaten to pull troops and aid.

This year's poll has been equally as chaotic: Rocket strikes and Taliban attacks on polling centers marked voting day and allegations of fraud have poured in since, with candidates alleging that high-level government officials tried to negotiate their supporters into office.

The candidates who were disqualified were taken from the race for a variety of reasons, including ballot-box stuffing, distributing fake voter cards and tampering with the results stored in ballot boxes, said Ahmad Zia Rafat, a commissioner who acts as spokesman for the group.

The Electoral Complaints Commission has forwarded those ruling to Afghan election officials so they can issue final poll results, Rafat said.

Seven of the candidates who were thrown out were incumbents, Rafat said. In some other cases, a challenger was unseated for fraud, giving the seat back to the incumbent.

The commission had been focusing on examining the approximately 2,500 priority complaints, those that could swing the results of a race. Those are now completed, and the panel will now start looking at thousands of lower-priority complaints. But those concern candidates who did not have enough votes to win a seat, so any further disqualifications announced by the panel will not affect the final make-up of parliament.

In the rulings announced Sunday, two second-place finishers were also disqualified. Since they finished behind candidates who were among the 19 winners thrown out, they would have stepped into the seat — but now those two seats will go to candidates who came in third.

The largest number of disqualifications were in western Herat province, where four winning candidates were thrown out of the race.

In addition to disqualifying candidates, the ECC voided ballots from 334 polling stations because they found evidence of fraud either in the voting process or in the final tallies, Rafat said.

This is in addition to the 1.3 million ballots excluded already by the Afghan election-organizing body.