|High stakes in Afghan vote recount
Two hands cup a ballot box. Are they guarding the sanctity of the ballots?
Or is someone trying to get their hands on the vote?
More than a month after millions of Afghans cast their ballots, a controversial election is going down to the wire, to the last institution on this chequered political landscape.
The ECC, the only electoral body which still has both foreign and Afghan officials, must now rule on a contentious vote mired in allegations of widespread, significant fraud.
After a series of meetings, a formula for a recount was agreed with the Independent Election Commission which carried out the preliminary tally giving 54.6% to Hamid Karzai in the presidential ballot.
ECC officials speak of a "scientifically drawn sample" from 10% of suspicious polling stations. They also believe it provides the most practical way forward in the midst of growing concern over this protracted political uncertainty.
"It's fair," affirms the Canadian head of the ECC, Grant Kippen, whose official pronouncements give little hint of the pressures now resting on his team.
The ECC is also working into the night, trying to sort through hundreds of complaints and is said to be "closer to the end than the beginning".
This technical body now shoulders the weight of political anxiety and expectation.
"We must follow the process," is now the mantra of foreign envoys and Afghans who have invested energy and hope in an exercise that was meant to move this country forward at a time of major challenges on every front.
'No win situation'
But behind the determined language, intended to show continuing faith in this election, there is intense discussion about what many call "a mess".
One diplomat called it a "no win situation".
“ The loser will be democracy and that's a bonus for the Taliban ”
Shukria Barakzai, MP
"If Hamid Karzai emerges with more than 50%, there will be accusations of official bias. If he emerges with less than 50%, there will be charges of foreign interference."
Afghanistan watchers in many capitals are providing a blitz of options to salvage some credibility: a second round of voting no matter what emerges from the official count; a traditional loya jirga to ease political tensions; the formation of a transitional council or a national unity government.
Many of these scenarios throw up other political and logistical problems, as well as the danger of more violence and another equally tainted process.
And some have little chance of being accepted at the presidential palace where many in Hamid Karzai's team believe it is just a matter of time before victory is declared.
"There is no need to derive legitimacy from some other process," insisted one of President Karzai's aides. He said they were waiting, like everyone else, for the ruling which emerges from the recount.
Some observers, who have done their own audits, firmly believe no presidential candidate scored above 50% to win in the first round.
Uncertainty within the international community over how to handle this politically charged situation was exposed in the publicised row between UN envoy Kai Eide, and his deputy Peter Galbraith.
"Rules have been established," said Kai Eide in a telephone interview from Kabul. He emphasised the importance of "avoiding any impression of foreign interference" and insisted the process was now "back on track" with the agreement on a recount.
Sources say Mr Galbraith's harsh complaint about the IEC, whose independence is questioned by many, caused upset among Afghan election officials and President Karzai.
So did the announcement by the EU observer mission that one in three ballots were suspect.
One Western diplomat called it a "tightrope". Foreign envoys have been trying to keep this crucial process, as well as their relationship with Afghan authorities, on an even keel.
When the US special representative, Richard Holbrooke, first raised the possibility of a second round, as early as the day after voting, it provoked an angry reaction from Hamid Karzai.
It took some arduous diplomacy of late to convince Afghan authorities ballots had to be printed for a second round, just in case.
But this prolonged process has again provoked debate over the difficult relationship between Afghanistan and its allies. "We are not against investigation of fraud, we are against foreign interference," says MP Shukria Barakzai.
"The loser will be democracy and that's a bonus for the Taliban," she said.
AFGHAN POLL FRAUD
# 15 Sep: ECC chief says 10% of votes need to be recounted
# 8 Sep: Poll complaints body orders some recounts nationwide
# 8 Sep: IEC says votes from 600 polling stations "quarantined"
# 3 Sep: Claims 30,000 fraudulent votes cast for Karzai in Kandahar
# 30 Aug: 2,000 fraud allegations are probed; 600 deemed serious
# 20 Aug: Election day and claims 80,000 ballots were filled out fraudulently for Karzai in Ghazni
# 18 Aug: Ballot cards sold openly and voter bribes offered
MP Daoud Sultanzoy disagrees. "Moments like this teach nations that the rule of law means something. What would we say to a British mother who lost her son in the war - that we have foregone the rule of law?"
Beyond the high walls of heavily fortified foreign missions and official buildings, many Afghans are more preoccupied with the hardship and insecurity that weighs most heavily in their daily lives.
For all the talk of democracy, the international community invested few resources in recent years to prepare Afghans for an election the UN called the most complicated in the world.
Nader Nadery, who chairs Afghanistan's Free and Fair Election Foundation, insisted fraud must be properly addressed, lest "a sense of impunity and immunity hijack the democratic nature of future elections".
How much rigging?
No one doubts fraud marred this second presidential race since 2001, and the first contest run by Afghans, with international support. How much rigging is the issue.
The ECC said it was "clear and convincing" in some areas.
Some observers describe it as "industrial scale". The main challenger in the presidential race, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, declared in an interview it was "massive, state engineered". Hamid Karzai admitted in a news conference some government officials had been "partial". But he insisted "if there was fraud, it was small".
Election sources are warning that results from the provincial council elections, held on the same day, are even more troubling.
If Hamid Karzai's victory is confirmed, efforts are certain to be stepped up to convince Dr Abdullah to join some kind of governing arrangement. For the moment, that looks unlikely given deep personal animosities which go back years. "Absolutely not. No. N-o!" Dr Abdullah replied when asked.
If no first round winner emerges, there is another set of major challenges - to hold a run-off before the end of October when winter starts closing in. A second round in the spring would create a dangerous political vacuum.
Time is running out on all fronts. Eight years on, the Taliban is holding sway in more and more areas, exploiting Afghan disappointment. And countries with troops on the ground are under pressure at home to show this is a war worth fighting.
Long after this recount, many will still wonder who really won in this election.