Afghanistan's Slow-Motion Election Strains A Fragile Country

Jul 2, 2014
Originally published on July 2, 2014 5:53 am

The 2000 U.S. presidential election between George Bush and Al Gore went down to the wire, involved close scrutiny of the ballots and took weeks to sort out. And it left the country deeply divided.

Now, imagine a bitterly close election in a divided country with weak institutions, powerful strongmen, rampant corruption and thousands of armed militants running around.

That's what is playing out in Afghanistan right now as the country tries to determine who won the June 14 presidential runoff election.

The preliminary results were due out Wednesday, but Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission called a last-minute audible to audit more than a million ballots and delay the release of preliminary results.

The delay stems from the fact that since the moment the polls closed, candidate Abdullah Abdullah has been crying foul.

Abdullah entered the runoff as the front-runner, having won 45 percent of the vote in the first round of voting in April. He was five points shy of an outright victory in the eight-man contest. Abdullah had a 14 percentage point lead over second-place finisher Ashraf Ghani. Many thought Abdullah was on target to be the next president.

But unofficial vote counts from the runoff are showing Ghani leading Abdullah by 1.3 million votes. These numbers show him going from 2 million votes in the first round to 4.2 million in the runoff.

Ghani was expected to get more votes in June's two-way race compared with April's eight-man race. However, according to Abdullah, the size of the increase can only be explained by massive fraud.

Abdullah claims the top electoral official — who resigned last week — was involved in rigging the election for Ghani at the behest of President Hamid Karzai. Abdullah says initial turnout estimates are way too high and a sign of fraud. And, he says, unofficial results in some pro-Ghani provinces exceed the number of likely voters.

As a result, Abdullah declared Afghanistan's two electoral commissions as illegitimate. His supporters have been holding demonstrations that are growing in size. While the rallies have been peaceful, the slogans are troubling: "Death to Ghani," "Death to Karzai" and "Death to the Elections Commissions."

Abdullah has also been releasing audio and video recordings that purportedly show elections officials conspiring to rig the vote against him. That precipitated last week's resignation of Zia-ul-haq Amarkhel, the country's top election official, who was appointed by Karzai.

In the wake of that resignation, Abdullah began talks with remaining election officials, mediated by the United Nations, on finding a way forward. That led to the decision to delay the preliminary results and conduct a vote audit.

But Abdullah says the audit doesn't dig deep enough. He said in an interview after the election commission announced the delay that he has more evidence of fraud he will present.

He says he has proposed a set of "triggers" that should result in further audits. For example, he wants all ballot boxes where the count is more than 93 percent for either candidate to be audited.

"I hope that these triggers that we are suggesting is not considered as against a candidate, but rather for transparency," he says.

Ghani has said little since the election, but he has called on Abdullah to respect the process and the timelines.

Once the preliminary results are released, there will be another complaint period and further investigations into fraud allegations. The final results are scheduled to be released July 22, and the inauguration is scheduled for Aug. 2. So far, Ghani believes the numbers show that will be his day.

He and his supporters say they mobilized aggressively and simply out-campaigned Abdullah in the second round. Ghani ran a superior "get out the vote" effort and won the election fair and square, they argue. Ghani says he does not believe there was widespread fraud on his behalf, and he will relinquish any fraudulent votes cast for him.

Abdullah says there's no evidence that there was a surge in turnout, especially in insecure areas where Ghani saw the largest vote gains.

Abdullah continues to claim that his concerns are first about the legitimacy of the process and second about whether he wins. He believes once all the fraudulent ballots are eliminated, he will come out on top. And he says he will concede if he loses in a fair count.

But many of his supporters have said there is no acceptable outcome other than an Abdullah victory, and they say they will "fight to protect their votes."

That's raising concerns here and playing on old tribal and ethnic divides that have never fully healed since the country's vicious civil war in the 1990s.

The international community is working aggressively behind the scenes to pressure the candidates and Afghanistan's electoral commissions to work transparently and quickly, and to find a way to address Abdullah's concerns.

But there's a growing fear that one side or the other will end up believing the election was stolen — either on election day or during the counting and fraud adjudication process.

The best-case scenario is a new president takes office lacking a mandate and with roughly half the country against him. In the worst case, the losing side decides to contest the decision — not with lawyers, but with warlords.

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And during the presidential campaign last spring in Afghanistan, that country's leading candidate told me his biggest rival was fraud. His second rival was also fraud. Abdullah Abdullah was only half joking.


And here we are today, with the runoff between Afghanistan's two top candidates in serious trouble. Election officials were supposed to release preliminary results of the runoff today. But that announcement has been delayed because they're conducting a last-minute audit of more than a million ballots.

MONTAGNE: And Abdullah Abdullah is accusing election officials and others of rigging the vote in favor of his rival candidate, Ashraf Ghani. NPR's Sean Carberry had a chance to speak with Abdullah about his charges and has this report.

SEAN CARBERRY, BYLINE: The ink was barely dry on voters fingers when Abdullah claimed that Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, the country's top election official, had engaged in vote-rigging. Abdullah said, the election commission's initial estimate that more than seven million Afghans had turned out to vote was suspiciously high. Less than a week after the vote, Abdullah called the elections commission illegitimate and said, he would not respect the results.

ABDULLAH ABDULLAH: We needed to put pressure. This is a very, very serious issue.

CARBERRY: Pressure like releasing secret audio recordings, such as this one, alleged to be Amarkhil directing elections officials to stuff ballots for the other candidate, Ashraf Ghani.

(Foreign language spoken.)

CARBERRY: The recordings haven't been verified, but they did lead to the resignation of the chief electoral officer.

ABDULLAH: But that was not sufficient, of course. Somebody should've answered for his own actions which ruined the foundation of trust over the process.

CARBERRY: Abdullah won 45 percent of the vote in the first round in April. He was five points shy of an outright victory and led Ghani by nearly a million votes. Many thought Abdullah would cruise to a win. But unofficial vote counts with the runoff show Ghani leading by more than a million votes. It appears Ghani more than doubled his vote count from the first round. It's an increase that, Abdullah says, can only be explained by massive fraud.

ABDULLAH: I believe that with taking the fraudulent ballot papers out, there will be a different outcome. But at the same time, the legitimacy of the process is important.

CARBERRY: Ghani supporters argue Abdullah's taking the elections process hostage because he can't accept losing. Ghani claims he simply out-campaigned Abdullah in the second round and mobilized religious leaders and tribal elders to turn out voters. Abdullah doesn't buy that explanation, given Afghanistan's history of elections fraud.

ABDULLAH: We are talking about the situation where, from some provinces of Daykundi, 200 percent - 216 percent of eligible voters reportedly voted in favor of one candidate. That is more than a miracle.

CARBERRY: Abdullah welcomes the decision by the electoral commission to delay the results and audit suspect votes. But he says, the audit criteria are too narrow and more ballots should be inspected. Ghani's campaign argues that any delays will undermine the legitimacy of the outcome and that the voters deserve to know the preliminary results. But Abdullah doesn't want to wait until the appeals process before the final results.

ABDULLAH: We are not here to kill the process. The time is also of essence. For me, it's important that the credibility of the process is recovered.

CARBERRY: The international community has been working behind the scenes to bring Abdullah back into the process. But they say, that's not helped by Abdullah calling for demonstrations, where protesters have been chanting, death to Ghani and death to the electoral commission.

ABDULLAH: I don't advocate those messages. And people are angry. There is no doubt about it.

CARBERRY: And there's a growing concern that Abdullah's supporters will resort to violence if he doesn't win, even if all suspected fraud is eliminated.

ABDULLAH: We don't advocate threat of force. All that we are asking is scrutiny.

CARBERRY: As the uncertainty and animosity grows, the best-case scenario is a new president takes office lacking a mandate and with roughly half the country against him. Worst-case - people fear the loser decides to appeal the final decision not with lawyers, but with guns. Sean Carberry, NPR News, Kabul.

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