Presidential candidates at odds over alleged electoral fraud.
Afghanistan’s presidential election result has been delayed for several days, officials said Tuesday, as a dispute over alleged fraud threatens to derail the country’s first democratic transfer of power.
Abdullah Abdullah, reported to be far behind in the vote count, welcomed the delay and called for an anti-fraud audit that could trigger a prolonged political stalemate as U.S.-led combat troops end their 13-year war against the Taliban.
The United Nations and donor countries have been trying for months to prevent a contested election outcome, fearing a messy power struggle that could fuel ethnic unrest. But with Abdullah and his poll rival Ashraf Ghani at loggerheads, many fear the deadlock could tip Afghanistan into street protests and uncertainty.
The Independent Election Commission (IEC) said preliminary results due out on Wednesday would be delayed and some ballot boxes from the June 14 run-off vote would be checked “to make sure of transparency.”
“Now there is a time, there is a space, because of the delay,” said Abdullah in an interview at his heavily fortified residence in Kabul. “We are talking about measures that would be more robust, vigorous auditing [and] that would take care of the fraudulent ballot papers. Almost everybody now agrees there has been industrial-scale fraud … The outcome will not be considered legitimate if that is not being taken care of.”
Abdullah, previously seen as the front-runner, boycotted the vote count over the alleged fraud, while his rival Ghani said the election was fair and claimed victory by more than one million votes.
Ghani’s campaign team on Tuesday criticized the delay in results, but said it welcomed any attempt to reduce fraud. “We believe the election commission should work in accordance to the election timeline and announce results on time,” said campaign spokeswoman Azita Rafat. “If this delay is for the sake of transparency then we accept it, though it runs against the election law.”
Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter, believes fraud denied him victory in the 2009 election and says that he is again the victim of ballot-box stuffing, especially in the volatile south and east of Afghanistan. In contrast, Ghani has said he put together a coalition of voters from across ethnic lines to score a surprise victory.
Any tension between rival supporters could ignite ethnic unrest since Ghani attracts much of his support from the Pashtun tribes of the south and east, while Abdullah’s loyalists are Tajiks and other northern Afghan groups. The U.N. last week called on candidates and their supporters to “refrain from any acts that incite imminent violence, civil disorder or lead to instability.”
The preliminary result is due to be followed by a period for adjudication of complaints, with the final result due on July 22 and the inauguration of a new president on August 2. “The [preliminary] announcement has been delayed for several days,” said Independent Election Commission member Sharifa Zurmati. “We will hopefully finish the inspection on Friday and then set a date. During the inspection, some votes will be invalidated.”
In the eight-man first-round election on April 5, Abdullah was far ahead with 45 percent against Ghani’s 31.6 percent.
Karzai, who has ruled since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, is constitutionally barred from a third term in office. He has not publicly endorsed either candidate and has vowed to ensure a legitimate election—seen as a key test of the massive U.S.-led military and civilian aid effort since the Taliban era.
NATO’s 50,000-strong combat force will leave Afghanistan by December, though about 10,000 U.S. troops will stay into next year if the new president signs a security deal with Washington.