KABUL — More than three months after voters first went to the polls, Afghans began the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr without a new president as a slow-going electoral audit continues to be dogged by controversy.
International and Afghan observers ended their work ahead of the holiday amid mixed news about the unprecedented process that officials hope will resolve the hotly disputed election, which was marked by accusations of widespread fraud.
Petty disagreements between workers as well as more substantial arguments between the two candidates’ campaigns have made for a grinding start-and-stop process.
Supporters of former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, who garnered most votes in the first round but came in second during the runoff, have continued to complain that the process is biased in favor of Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister who emerged as the frontrunner according to preliminary results. On Saturday Abdullah’s supporters staged a walkout, causing the audit to suspend its work for the third time in 10 days.
It is due to start up again on Thursday, after the holiday, when U.S. officials hope the two sides will have calmed down and have had time to come to resolve any remaining disagreements over procedure.
The political wrangling comes amid a Taliban offensive that has seen escalating combat and brazen insurgent attacks such as the raid this month against Kabul’s heavily defended international airport. The guerrilas have vowed to intensify attacks on Afghan and international troops ahead of the drawdown of the US-led foreign combat forces at the end of this year.
Over the weekend, United Nations officials who are helping oversee the audit of all 8 million ballots said the two camps finally agreed to criteria for recounting and invalidating ballots, two weeks after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry brokered the deal that led to the effort to re-examine the votes.
“Both candidates indicated to the United Nations that they had their own respective concerns with the proposal, but were prepared to proceed with it as a good faith effort based on international best practice to bridge their positions,” the world body said in a statement. “Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani expressed their shared view that it was in the national interest to finalize the regulatory framework of the audit.”
Western officials, led by Kerry, have said they see a successful election as key to ensuring the stability of Afghanistan and that the international military and civil effort since 2001 has not been in vain.
President Barack Obama spent the better part of an hour on the phone with each candidate Friday, warning them to tone down their rhetoric and to stick to the agreements made when Kerry visited Kabul earlier in July. He also urged them to work out the details of a plan that would allow whoever loses the election to play a part in the new government.
Officials at the U.S. Embassy said that political deal will be key to making sure that the outcome of the audit is respected. Still, there is no end in sight as overworked observers sift through millions of ballots.
The audit so far has been marred by the fact that much of the process is being made up as it goes along, leading to many disagreements and a sometimes arbitrary feel to the decisions being made, said several international observers who asked not to be named because of the sensitive political situation.
That’s an assessment shared by some high-ranking American officials as well, who privately acknowledged that the process began in a rushed manner, while resources and personnel were still being gathered, and while some of the procedures remained undefined. They said they hope some of those problems can be mitigated during the Eid break.
Meanwhile, both campaigns continue to wage a public battle that western officials fear could inflame the situation and lead to another breakdown, and, in a worse-case scenario, violence.
The bigger problem, however, may be that neither of the two candidates has full control over their supporters. American officials say they think both Abdullah and Ghani personally are committed to working things out in a peaceful process, but that they are under enormous pressure from their backers to fight over each step.
Faizal Rahman Orya, a member of Abdullah’s team, said the U.N. needs to be the final arbiter of the auditing process, not the Independent Election Commission, which Abdullah has accused of working in Ghani’s favor.
“The two teams agreed earlier that the U.N. would play role of judge during audit,” he told Stripes. “But Ghani’s team wants the election team to do this role. If we trusted the election commission we would not be having this audit. The U.N. should make the final decision.”
Ghani’s spokesman, Faizullah Zaki, denied that his candidate was causing any delays and said they were waiting on the IEC to finalize the technical aspects of the audit process.
U.S. Embassy officials said they are urging each side to focus on the big-picture problems, such as boxes that may contain hundreds of fraudulent ballots, rather than arguing over one or two suspicious votes.
“If what Abdullah says happened has happened, then there will be boxes with millions of invalid votes,” said one senior official, speaking on background. “Our experts say the audit process should be able to spot that.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.