Has Afghan election fraud controversy been defused?

Abdullah Abdullah, who is vying to be Afghanistan's next president, has accused the election commission of rigging the vote. The resignation of an election official may quell the controversy.

Massoud Hossaini/AP
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah (c.) is greeted by a supporter after a news conference in Kabul, Afghanistan, on Monday. Afghanistan's chief electoral officer resigned Monday in a bid to resolve a political crisis over allegations of massive fraud in the runoff presidential vote earlier this month.

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah – whose allegations of mass fraud have injected uncertainty into a close-fought election – has met with the Afghan electoral commission, the United Nations said today, in what’s seen as a bid to defuse tension. 

The Monday night meeting “allowed for an exchange of views,” between Mr. Abdullah and the Independent Election Commission, according to the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan. Last week Abdullah said he wouldn't cooperate with the election commission, raising concern over the country’s first democratic transition of power. 

Abdullah, a former foreign minister, took part in a June 14 run-off presidential vote; the other candidate on the ballot was Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official. In the first round of voting in May, Adbullah received 45 percent of the vote and Mr. Ghani polled 32 percent.

On Monday, Chief Electoral Officer Ziaulhaq Amarkhil resigned after the Abdullah campaign released unverified tapes of the election chief and his aides allegedly arranging to rig the vote against Abdullah. Mr. Amarkhil said he was innocent but was resigning for the “national interest of my country.”

The resignation creates political space for Abdullah to step back from the brink. But its unclear whether his campaign will continue to pursue other alleged irregularities. Preliminary election results are due by July 2, with final results later in the month.

“You have to remember [Abdullah] also took issue to two other points beyond calling for Amarkhil’s resignation – the more than seven million turnout and what he says is a higher turnout than the populations of several provinces – so he could certainly use those two issues as reasons to keep crying foul,” says Borhan Osman, a Kabul-based analyst at the Afghanistan Analyst Network.

As the Monitor reported last week, the rapid same-day official announcement that seven million Afghanis voted in the run-off election raised suspicion, due to reports of lower turnout than in the first round of the election, and questions of whether statistics could be tallied that quickly.

In Kabul, election workers at some polling stations said it had been a slow day. “Last round we filled two ballot boxes just for presidential votes, this time we barely filled half of one box”, said an election worker at a female-only polling station in the Lycée Zarghuna.

Some Afghans are skeptical of the election commission’s claim of a higher turnout. Analysts cited the slow transport of ballot boxes from more rural districts as a reason to be cautious about a snap judgment and accused the commission of trying to spin the vote as a success.

A speedy resolution to the electoral crisis should be a priority for Afghan officials since so many voters turned out despite security threats, says Mir Ahmad Joyenda of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

"Our people have reached their political maturity and want to engage in the democratic process,” he says. “But now we have to see if the candidates will accept the results and show respect for the people’s votes, regardless of the outcome… The sooner the results are announced, the better. The people’s faith in democracy will be strengthened by a quick result.”

Whether Adbullah or Ghani, both former ministers in President Hamid Karzai’s cabinet, ultimately accedes to the presidency, either man will face a slew of governing challenges.

The next president will be in power when the US withdraws its combat troops. Both candidates have pledged to sign a bilateral security agreement that would allow 9,800 US forces to stay in Afghanistan in 2015 before they withdraw completely in 2016.

The next Afghan president will also face a crumbling economy, and the risk of financial blacklisting – factors that The Washington Post recently said “stand a better chance at destabilizing the country and throwing the U.S. investment here into a tailspin,” than the Taliban insurgency.

Neither candidate campaigned primarily on his ability to suppress the insurgency. Both found that the electorate had more pressing worries.

“I’m not concerned about the insurgency. The security forces are capable of dealing with it,” said Yama Torabi, head of Integrity Watch Afghanistan, an Afghan watchdog organization. “But I am concerned about corruption and its impact on the economy.”

Now, Afghanistan is left with a vast government apparatus — 17 ministries and thousands of public-sector employees — but little way to fund it. Its next president will have to persuade an increasingly disillusioned international community to keep billions flowing to Kabul as reforms are undertaken. The president will have to upend a system of institutionalized corruption that has benefited members of both candidates’ campaign teams.

Afghanistan’s next leader will also have to counter the increasingly popular prediction among some Western politicians that Afghanistan would follow the recent example of the site of American’s other recent war, Iraq.

Writing in Foreign Policy, journalist Lynne O’Donnell, who has been reporting on Afghanistan since 2001, points out some of the differences between Afghanistan and Iraq:

ISIS has proved that lack of governance creates a vacuum for insurgents and terrorists to fill. The Taliban did so after Afghanistan's civil war but it is unlikely they could do the same today: Not only do they not have public support, they appear to be struggling financially. Where ISIS has been robbing banks and picking up oil assets as it goes, the Taliban have been extending the begging bowl. In April they admitted they were "in dire need of financial assistance from the Muslim brothers worldwide for its military and non-military expenditures."

Afghanistan's potential fault lines are largely ethnic, rather than religious. Abdullah is of mixed Tajik and Pashtun background and has strong support from the largely Tajik north thanks to leaders such as the governor of Balkh province, Atta Mohammad Noor, a former Tajik mujahedeen commander who openly campaigned for him.

Ali Latifi contributed reporting from Kabul.

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