Nearly one in ten of the politicians who won a place in Afghanistan's parliament in a September poll have been disqualified for fraud, the country's election watchdog said on Sunday.
The latest blow to a vote already plagued by allegations of widespread corruption comes a day after NATO wrapped up a major summit in Lisbon where Afghanistan topped the agenda, particularly an exit plan for foreign troops there.
Twenty-one candidates who had earned a winning number of votes in their district were banned, said Ahmad Zia Rafat, part of the five-person Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) panel. There are 249 seats in parliament.
"Due to irregularities, usage of fake votes and the influence of provincial officials, which created electoral fraud, we decided to disqualify votes in their favour," Rafat told a news conference in the Afghan capital.
Seven of those disqualified were sitting members of parliament, and one is a first cousin of President Hamid Karzai, who shares his surname. The rejected candidates will not be able to appeal, Rafat added.
Final results have still not been released more than two months after the Sept. 18 poll, because of the sheer volume of complaints to investigate, but the disqualifications could pave the way for a conclusion of the election process.
The credibility of the eventual result will weigh heavily when U.S. President Barack Obama reviews his Afghan war strategy next month amid rising violence and sagging public support.
The ECC will pass the names to the Independent Election Commission which is tasked with announcing the new members of the wolesi jirga, or lower house of parliament.
"Based on our findings, the IEC should release the final results," Rafat said.
Complaints about fraud and vote rigging began before Afghans even went to the polls, although limited violence on the day meant it was initially hailed by Afghan officials as a success.
Civilian and military casualties this year have been the highest since the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001, despite the presence of around 150,000 foreign troops, and violence has spread to previously peaceful northern and western provinces.
Scores of candidates have alleged bribe-taking or fraud by election officials and called for a new poll. Some have warned that a parliament that does not take properly represent the country's various ethnicities would lead to instability.
There were over 6,000 complaints made to the ECC, and the IEC, which administered the vote, threw out as invalid almost a quarter of the 5.6 million votes it said had been cast.
The IEC is itself is also being investigated by the attorney general's office over election fraud.
Fraud around the country
The disqualified candidates came from all around the country -- including western Farah and Herat provinces, eastern Paktika, northern Badakhshan, central Wardak and southern Taliban heartlands Kandahar and Helmand.
They include at least two Karzai allies including his first cousin Ashmat Khalil Karzai, once ran a security company, and Haji Niaz Mohammad Lalai who is a former jihadi commander close to the President. Both had run in Kandahar.
The election went ahead despite a Taliban threat to disrupt it, but Western nations have been wary of dubbing it a success after last year's fraud-marred presidential ballot.
Donors who paid for the $149 million poll are less concerned about turnout or individual results for the 249 seats than the level of fraud committed.
Unsuccessful candidates warned that if the final makeup of parliament is heavily tainted by corruption, or does not offer proper representation for the country's different ethnicities, it could create resentment that will fuel instability.
"The mafia has taken over parliament, the ethnic representation of the this country is completely demolished," said Dawood Sultanzoy, an outspoken current member of parliament. He says many of his votes were unfairly disqualified and he currently does not expect to hold his seat.
"(This) can send hundreds of thousands of people into the arms of the insurgency," he added.