KABUL - Afghanistan’s two presidential rivals agreed Saturday to an audit of every vote cast in last month’s disputed election to try to end a bitter standoff that raised fears of violence and ethnic unrest.
The agreement between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah came at the end of two days of frantic negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry.
The deadlock over the run-off vote to choose a successor to outgoing President Hamid Karzai plunged Afghanistan into political crisis and dented US hopes of a smooth transfer of power as Washington seeks to withdraw all its troops by late 2016.
Preliminary results of the second-round vote put Ghani in the lead, but Abdullah - who has already once lost a presidential bid - declared himself the true winner, saying massive fraud robbed him of victory.
But almost 48 hours after he flew into the Afghan capital on a hastily-arranged mediation trip, Kerry announced the breakthrough.
“Both candidates have committed to participate in and stand by the results of the largest possible audit. Every single ballot that was cast will be audited, all eight million,” Kerry told reporters.
“The winner will serve as president and will immediately form a government of national unity.”
The deal went further than a UN proposal made late on Thursday to audit just over 8,000 polling stations where suspicions of ballot-stuffing had been raised - around 44 percent of the total votes cast.
Ghani’s campaign had embraced the UN plan but Abdullah’s team remained sceptical, arguing the proposal failed to address all their concerns.
Kerry said the full audit would be carried out in Kabul and begin within 24 hours, with NATO and Afghan forces transporting ballot boxes to the capital. The chief US diplomat said the audit would be “conducted in accordance with the highest international standards” and would take “a number of weeks”. He said the UN mission in Afghanistan had asked for the presidential inauguration date, scheduled for August 2, to be postponed.
- UN calls for observers -
The head of the UN mission in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, appealed for observers to oversee the audit.
“To make it (the audit) a success, I would like to appeal to international observer organisations... send as quickly as possible teams to support this process,” Kubis said.
On Friday Kerry stressed that results released on Monday showing Ghani in the lead — with some 56 percent of the vote, ahead of Abdullah on 44 percent — were only “preliminary”.
“They are neither authoritative nor final, and no one should be stating a victory at this point in time,” Kerry said.
Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter, draws his support among Tajiks and other northern Afghan groups, while Ghani is backed by Pashtun tribes of the south and east — a disturbing echo of the ethnic divisions of the civil war in the 1990s.
Thirteen years after the 2001 US invasion ousted the hardline Taliban Islamic regime, all sides are keen to maintain the gains made in such areas as literacy rates and women’s rights.
But Afghan forces know they will increasingly have to stand up to a resilient and bloody Taliban insurgency on their own as international forces withdraw.
Washington also wants a signed deal on protecting US forces left in the country until late 2016.
Underlining the parlous security situation, as the leaders met in Kabul a roadside bomb in the restive southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban heartland, killed eight civilians.