Afghanistan's Abdullah threatens to withdraw from recount process

Presidential candidate Abdullah's threat ratchets up tension over a disputed election recount, which both candidates had agreed to in response to allegations of mass fraud.

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    Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah (c.) talks to his supporters during a rally at a wedding hall in Kabul, Afghanistan, last Thursday. Mr. Abdullah said today that his campaign would drop out of the presidential vote recount if the recount did not aggressively seek out fraudulent ballots.
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The team of Afghanistan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah today added further turmoil to a delayed and bitter election process by threatening to withdraw from a United Nations-assisted vote audit within 24 hours.

Fazal Ahmad Manawi, an adviser to Mr. Abdullah, told reporters in Kabul that the audit of more than 8 million ballots from the June 14 runoff election is a “joke” and called for the immediate adoption of stricter procedures in order to identify and destroy fraudulent ballots.

“If by tomorrow morning our demands … are not accepted, our patience has ultimately run out,” Mr. Manawi said, according to The Washington Post. “We will consider this process a finished one, will not continue in it and not accept it, and the results will have no value to us.”

There was no immediate response from opponent Ashraf Ghani’s camp. A fight broke out between Abdullah and Mr. Ghani’s supporters after the announcement at the headquarters of the Independent Election Commission, where the audit is being run, The New York Times reports. 

Today’s demand is the latest escalation of a crisis that threatens to drag Afghanistan into a prolonged political conflict just as the US prepares to withdraw most of its combat forces by the end of this year. Adding urgency is current President Hamid Karzai’s insistence that he will leave office next week.

It was also hoped that a new Afghanistan president would be installed in time for a NATO meeting Sept. 4-5 to discuss continued aid to Afghanistan, a goal that looks increasingly unrealistic.

How did we get here?

Abdullah won the first round of voting between 10 candidates in May, but not by enough votes to avoid a runoff. He claims that mass fraud was orchestrated in the second round of voting in June in order to give victory to Ghani.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC), the body overseeing the elections, said in July that preliminary results show Ghani won the election with 56 percent of the vote, earning just over 1 million more votes than Abdullah. 

US Secretary of State John Kerry has flown to Kabul twice this summer, mostly recently on Aug. 8, to broker a deal between Abdullah and Ghani. Mr. Kerry received promises from both candidates to respect the outcome of an audit of all 8 million votes cast in the runoff election and to give a meaningful role in the government to the losing side.

Today’s announcement raises doubt that Kerry’s deal will stand.

Driving the dispute

Yesterday, the IEC began the process of declaring fraudulent votes invalid. Abdullah’s campaign said that too few votes were being thrown out, resulting in their ultimatum today.

Part of the dispute is also centered on the splitting of the audit into a “normal audit” and a “special audit,” the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN) explains. Although Abdullah’s team had been pushing for the creation of a special audit that singled out ballots for extra scrutiny, the effort has been plagued by delays and the Ghani camp has different ideas about its importance:

The special audit is the result of a long-standing demand by the Abdullah team to single out certain categories of polling stations for invalidation and/or scrutiny, including those showing an exponential increase in turnout between the first and second rounds, or a large disparity between population figures as given by the Central Statistics Office and the turnout. The UN instead negotiated the inclusion in the IEC’s audit checklist of a clause (criteria 16 of the list) referring to boxes containing “results that require special scrutiny according to international best practices.” So now, after weeks of continued discussions, both candidate teams agreed to each put forward lists of boxes that they believed required “special scrutiny.” They settled on 3000 boxes each, 6000 in total. 

Each of the four warehouses now has a cordoned off section with access limited to specifically registered agents and observers, presumably in an attempt to prevent whole crowds from joining in the disputes. The special audit has, so far, been excruciatingly slow, even more than the regular audit has been. On the first day most teams did not manage to finalize a single box within the first five-hour shift. At the end of the first day, the 24 teams had audited a total of 37 boxes. The pace has since picked up somewhat, but it remains slow.

Where members of the Abdullah team argued that the special audit will determine the outcome of the full audit, Ghani team members were downplaying its importance, saying it was no different, or in no way more important than the rest of the full audit. 

There are also concerns about ethnic unrest, should the election process unravel further, the Washington Post notes.

Concerns of violence were heightened by an apparent split among voters along ethnic lines. Ghani, who is Pashtun, received his greatest support among Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group. Abdullah’s mother is of Tajik descent and his father was Pashtun, but Abdullah appeared to receive most of his support from predominately Tajik areas of northern Afghanistan where Massoud, his late mentor and an ethnic Tajik, was especially revered.

What happens next?

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan will increase its participation "to ensure the continuing credibility of the process" of the audit if one of the campaigns backs out, the mission said in a statement today.

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