KABUL, Afghanistan — United Nations diplomats and the chairman of an Afghan election commission are sparring over efforts to curb fraud in the country's Nov. 7 presidential runoff election.
U.N. and Western officials want to bolster the Afghan election process in the hope that a second round between incumbent President Hamid Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah can quickly yield a winner whom most Afghans accept as legitimate.
The diplomats are pressing for several changes, including closing hundreds of polling centers that recorded thousands of questionable votes, most of them for Karzai, during the first round of voting on Aug. 20.
"We will not give people the opportunity to use these stations," said Aleem Siddique, a spokesman for the United Nations mission in Afghanistan.
An Afghan election official, however, said that he hopes to keep all of the more than 6,000 polling centers open, and that there should be no special effort to shut down those that were a focal point of fraud.
"These are my decisions, not the United Nations' decision," said Azizullah Ludin, a Karzai appointee who serves as the chairman of the Afghan Independent Election Commission. "We've decided to open all the stations unless the security situation does not permit that."
The run-off was triggered by a fraud investigation that tossed out hundreds of thousands of questionable votes for Karzai in an election that was funded largely by some $380 million from international donors.
Karzai needed more than 50 percent of the vote to avoid the runoff, but when fraudulent votes were deducted, his share dropped to 49.7 percent from 54.6 percent.
The widespread fraud was a major setback for U.S. and other NATO nations whose leaders had hoped the election would give them a credible ally as they wage the ninth year of war against the Taliban. It also damaged the credibility of Ludin and the seven-person election commission he leads.
Western diplomats initially were divided about how to deal with the fraud, but they eventually united to put strong pressure on Karzai to accept a second round election.
Much of the fraud was found in ethnic Pashtun areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan, the major base of support for Karzai, who's Pashtun.
In some districts, turnout was low due to insurgent violence, but the final tallies indicated that every registered voter turned out to vote for Karzai. Sometimes the ballot tally even exceeded the number of registered votes, and many of the polling places that the U.N. wants shut down are in Karzai strongholds.
Karzai supporters oppose those closures, saying that fewer polling centers would make it even more difficult for voters in areas where the Taliban are warning people not to vote.
"If the number of sites is decreased, this would be an atrocity for the people," said Nasema Niazi, a parliament member from Helmand province in southern Afghanistan. "They will be deprived of their rights."
Western officials said that keeping open some tainted polling centers would be an invitation to more ballot box stuffing.
"If you had a center with 100 percent fraud, for you to reopen it, that is just outrageous," said one Western official who's helped to monitor voting.
The commission's actions also are under close scrutiny by Abdullah, a former foreign minister under Karzai who accuses chairman Ludin of favoring Karzai.
"We have serious concerns that we will not have a fair and transparent election," said a senior member of Abdullah's campaign staff. "That there will again be fraud."
Ludin said he's been consulting with security officials, and expects the final decision on polling sites to be made during the next few days.
The U.N. and Ludin haven't reached agreement over staffing for the second round election.
Siddique, of the U.N., said that he expects that the second round to involve only about 60,000 election workers, down from about 160,000 in the first round, which involved about 40 presidential candidates and provincial council candidates.
Siddique said the staff reductions should weed out incompetent workers or those involved in fraud, including perhaps 200 of the roughly 380 district election officials.
"We are advising the IEC (Independent Election Commission) that there are certain categories of staff that we don't want to see rehired, and we expect them to follow through on that," Siddique said.
Ludin said the commission is investigating allegations of misconduct and would seek prosecution of officials involved in fraud. But he said he couldn't dismiss people based on "rumors," and wouldn't commit to a specific reduction in staff.
The loser of the second round could file complaints that would trigger more fraud investigations, but Siddique is hoping that the successful effort to discount fraudulent votes in the first round will discourage large-scale efforts to stuff ballot boxes on Nov. 7.
(Bernton reports for The Seattle Times. McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)
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