KABUL, Afghanistan — If a ballot box was stuffed but nobody saw it, did it happen?
That's a crucial question as claims of fraud surrounding Afghanistan's presidential election last week continue to pour in. On Wednesday, the Afghan electoral commission said Hamid Karzai's lead had widened to 44.8 percent of ballots counted against 35.1 percent for his main challenger, Abdullah Abdullah, with the ballots from 17 percent of the country's polling stations counted.
Afghan investigators say they're scrutinizing all complaints, but since electoral observers weren't present at many polling places, much fraud could have taken place out of view. Aside from a negligible contingent of international monitors, independent Afghan monitors only covered 60 percent of the polling centers.
That's going to make it very difficult to determine whether cheating undermined the choice of Afghan voters. And while analysts say they can work around missing data using statistical tools and common sense, subjective assessments could be easily politicized by Afghans and others unhappy with their conclusions.
"The main reason why you haven't seen a strong international reaction yet is that it is unclear what kind of results are going to be presented," says Martine van Bijlert, codirector of the Afghanistan Analysts Network in Kabul. "We don't know yet whether we are going to be asked to believe the implausible."
Ms. Bijlert says that early reports from around the country of intimidation of voters and electoral observers and ballot box stuffing make her have doubts about the election's fairness, though she hastens to add that neither she nor anyone else has the full picture yet.
"The standard line in this kind of cases is that there were irregularities, but that they didn't affect the outcome of the elections. Reports from the provinces suggest otherwise. They suggest that these irregularities were actually designed to affect the outcome of the elections and that they probably did," says Bijlert.
In the coming days, Biljert says she'll be scrutinizing returns for hard-to-believe results - high female turnout in conservative and insecure areas, say, or generally high turnout figures in the country's south - before she makes up her mind about the legitimacy of the election.
At the moment it's still too early to judge, she says. "Basically we're all waiting for figures that can be analyzed, before we can really say which way this is going to turn."
NUMBER CRUNCHING, YES. BUT NUMBER SHARING?
Some of this number crunching is reportedly taking place already within the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the Afghan body charged with running the election.
The head of the IEC information technology division, Ajmal Amin Rabmal, told the Associated Press that his organization will catch 90 percent of the fraud with the help of computer algorithms. Later, however, an IEC spokesperson said Mr. Rabmal is no longer allowed to talk to the media - raising concerns that such data may not be made available to outside analysts.
Rabmal had explained that two separate computer systems are tallying the votes to catch any programmer tampering. And he told AP they will do statistical analyses on the results to look for anomalies in the data, such as Mr. Karzai getting 10 percent of the vote in three of four polling stations in the same area but 95 percent in a fourth station.
Afghans commonly question the independence of the IEC. The head of the electoral commission was appointed by Karzai without legislative or judicial oversight.
In Afghanistan's last round of national elections in 2004 and 2005 a lot of raw material was lost - ballot boxes went missing and registration data disappeared. The commissions archives became a scattered mess.
"There's no central repository for baseline figures, and that complicates the picture," says Candace Rondeaux, a senior analyst in Kabul with the International Crisis Group. On top of that, solid analysis "is very difficult" because of incomplete voter registration, problems with delivering election materials, and a lack of information about the security environment surrounding polling stations.
NOT ENOUGH OBSERVERS
"The lack of access for local and international observers is going to play a very big role. It will certainly give a candidate who is behind in the race the advantage of saying this process was not legitimate, we were unable to get our candidate agents in some polling stations," says Ms. Rondeaux.
Top candidate Mr. Abdullah was the only opponent of Karzai's who was able to field large numbers of observers. But he says he covered 20,000 out of 28,000 stations due to last minute credentialing, Taliban violence, and intimidation.
Even with partial coverage of the election by observers, at least 1,461 complaints have already been filed with the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). More than 150 of these, if found true, could change the final election tallies. The ECC includes international experts, but its mandate is merely to investigate specific irregularities - not analyze patterns to judge the entirety of the election.
If they judge a specific complaint to be valid, they can force a revote in a polling station or the invalidation of some votes. They do have the power to call a countrywide do-over, but that won't happen, says ECC spokesperson Nellika Little. Ultimately, it's the IEC - headed by a Karzai appointee - that will certify the election.
In the end, the judging of the election's validity will be "subjective" by all parties, says Marvin Weinbaum, a scholar-in-residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
"It's going to be what the international community and the Afghans ... determine," he says. "The choice is not between fair and not fair, it's how fair, how unfair. That's what it's going to come down to."