Afghans protest alleged election fraud, but turnout smaller than expected
KABUL — Supporters of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah marched through Kabul Saturday in support of his claims of election fraud and government complicity, but the demonstrations failed to draw the mass crowds many had expected.
Many had worried that mass protests could spark violence, further complicating the delicate political transition.
“We will not accept the results; we know Dr. Abdullah is the winner,” protester Rahmat Gul said. “Until the end, we will fight, we will try every option.”
No results from the June 14 runoff between Abdullah, a former foreign minister, and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani have been announced.
But Abdullah has already claimed massive fraud and a plot by the government to steal the election from him. Many experts say Abdullah’s claims could not only undermine the election, but also weaken the next government, regardless of who wins.
Ghani has rejected Abdullah’s fraud claims and called for the vote count to continue.
The successful candidate will replace President Hamid Karzai, who was barred from seeking a third term. A peaceful transition — the first democratic transfer of power in the country’s history — is seen as key to the next government’s legitimacy. That in turn is key to continuing international support for a country whose government is funded almost entirely by aid money.
The election crisis comes at a crucial time, too, with Taliban insurgents still locked in a bloody guerilla war and international military forces withdrawing from the country ahead of the Dec. 31 deadline for all foreign combat troops to leave.
The U.S. and its NATO allies are counting on the next president to sign a bilateral security agreement that would set the terms for a small contingent of foreign troops to remain in the country next year primarily to train and advise Afghan forces.
Abdullah has suggested the United Nations step in to mediate the dispute, a move Karzai endorsed on Friday, but it is unclear whether the U.N. will do so.
An official with the U.N. Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, quoted by the Agence France Presse news agency Saturday, reiterated the U.N.’s call for candidates to show restraint to avoid violence in the post-election period.
“We would call upon supporters of the candidates to refrain from inflammatory statements, or statements that promote divisive ethnic mobilization,” U.N. mission deputy chief Nicholas Haysom said.
The Independent Election Commission, the country’s main election body, postponed the planned release of initial results Saturday because of the protests. However, commission officials have rejected Abdullah’s demand that they stop counting votes until his accusations of fraud are investigated.
If the political squabbling delays announcement of the final vote tally — expected July 22 — that could in turn delay the inauguration of the next president, expected in August, at a time when the new Afghan government has pressing military and economic issues to address, said Graeme Smith, senior analyst with the International Crisis Group.
“The legitimacy of this election will be decided by the loser, so now it’s really a matter of the two camps reaching an understanding about what happened,” at the June 14th runoff election, he said.
At one rally Saturday, roughly 200 Abdullah supporters gathered around a traffic circle and listened to speakers who loudly criticized the election commission from the top of a minivan. The crowd shouted slogans against the government and tried to burn a picture of an election commission official, instead ripping the sign apart when it failed to fully ignite.
“If (the election commission) separates the clean votes from the fake ones and Dr. Ghani wins, we will respect that,” Abdullah supporter Omad Hijran said. “But we are here to defend a clean vote until the last drop of our blood.”
Zubair Babakarkhail contributed to this report.