Kerry seeks end to Afghan election impasse as rival candidates claim victory

Former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who lost the last election to President Hamid Karzai, wants a comprehensive audit of last month's runoff election ballots.

Jim Bourg/Reuters
Afghanistan's presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah speaks to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry at the start of a meeting at the U.S. embassy in Kabul July 11, 2014. Kerry said on Friday Afghanistan's transition to a self-reliant state hung in the balance after a contested presidential election and urged Afghan officials to focus on auditing the vote count to underpin its legitimacy.

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US Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul Friday to push for a resolution to the bitter election standoff that threatens to derail Afghanistan’s first democratic transition of power.

He has met with presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, current President Hamid Karzai, and United Nations officials. He is meeting rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah later today in a bid to get both candidates not to preemptively declare themselves victors and to agree to an extensive audit of suspected election fraud, Bloomberg reports.

“We are at a very critical moment for Afghanistan,” Kerry said before his meeting with the head of the UN mission in Afghanistan. “The future potential of a transition hangs in the balance.” 

Former foreign minister Dr. Abdullah, the winner of the first round of voting, has declared the June 14 run-off election fraudulent and withdrawn his cooperation with the country’s election commission.

In May, Abdullah polled 45 percent compared with Dr. Ghani's 32 percent. A dramatic reversal in the runoff election boosted Ghani to 56 percent of the vote compared to Abdullah’s 43 percent. Ghani says the result is due to increased turnout in his base of support in the south and east of the country. Mr. Abdullah alleges mass fraud.

Ghani said Friday that he agreed with Kerry that no victor should be declared yet, and pledged his support for an “extensive audit” of votes, in comments to reporters before his meeting with the Secretary, according to the Wall Street Journal and the BBC.

The rival campaigns disagree on how an audit would be carried out. Abdullah wants a more rigorous examination than that proposed by the UN, including audits of all polling stations where one candidate received more than 93 percent of the votes, and of polling stations for women where male staff were hired, the Wall Street Journal notes.

For the United States, the political stalemate is “threatening to undermine more than a decade of efforts to leave behind a strong Afghanistan capable of containing the Taliban insurgency and preventing extremist groups like al-Qaida from using the territory to endanger the American homeland,” Bloomberg reports.

The US wants Mr. Karzai's successor to sign a long delayed Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow the US to retain limited troops in the country after 2014. Karzai refused to sign the document; both Abdullah and Ghani have pledged to sign it.

But there are now questions on whether a new president can be sworn in by the previously scheduled date of August 2.

The United States threatened this week to withdraw billions in aid ­– on which the Afghan government is heavily reliant ­­– if the impasse over allegations of fraud is not resolved.

Earlier this week, Abdullah heightened tension by telling supporters that preliminary results from the run-off was “a coup against the people.” Some Abdullah supporters called for the formation of a parallel government. The Washington Post notes the concerns that a parallel government arouses:

Abdullah, who is of mixed Pashtun and Tajik heritage, draws much of his support from the ethnic Tajik communities in the north and western parts of the country. Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun from the eastern province of Logar, and is popular among Pashtun populations in the east and south.

Talks of a parallel government, therefore, have raised concerns among U.S. officials that the Afghan state could splinter along territorial or even ethnic lines, like it did following the Soviet withdrawal from the country in 1989. Then, Afghanistan descended into a hellish state of civil war, paving the way for the Taliban takeover of wide swathes of the country in 1996.

The BBC’s Karen Allen provided on-the-ground analysis from Kabul on Kerry’s visit:

Secretary of State John Kerry's visit is "critical" in ensuring the election authorities deliver a credible result which is "broadly acceptable" to the Afghan people.

In mathematical terms that means pushing for a much broader audit of votes - beyond the 3 million currently identified. In diplomatic terms it means finding a way through the fog of mistrust so that both sides start working together.

When earlier this week Abdullah Abdullah faced pressure from his supporters to declare a parallel government, the US quickly responded by warning that such an act would trigger the suspension of aid and security assistance.

Mr Abdullah pulled back from the brink but he will have to show his frustrated followers that the meeting with John Kerry has broadened the scope of the audit to prevent them spilling onto the streets - angry and armed.

Ashraf Ghani will be looking for some lines in the sand. One of his close aides told me they would continue to co-operate with the election authorities but feared that the "cascading demands" of Abdullah's side - was simply a "delaying tactic. They're looking to John Kerry to manage that.


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