KABUL - Afghanistan’s presidential rivals were Friday mulling a UN plan for a sweeping review of the disputed polls, as US Secretary of State John Kerry sought to broker an end to the political turmoil.
Under a proposal put forward by the United Nations, the country’s elections commission would audit ballot boxes from just over 8,000 polling stations where suspicions have been raised about the vote count.
The bitter standoff between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani over the run-off vote to succeed President Hamid Karzai has plunged Afghanistan into crisis and raised fears of a return to the ethnic violence of the 1990s.
As Kerry met separately with the rival candidates, he stressed that results released on Monday showing Ghani in the lead were only “preliminary”.
“They are neither authoritative nor final, and no-one should be stating a victory at this point in time,” Kerry said, as he held back-to-back meetings in the heavily-fortified US embassy after arriving in the early hours. “We want a unified, stable, democratic Afghanistan. It is important that whoever is president is recognised by the people as having become president through a legitimate process,” he said.
Despite Monday’s announcement, Abdullah, who has already lost one presidential bid in controversial circumstances, has declared himself the true winner, saying massive fraud robbed him of victory in the June 14 run-off vote.
In a swift boost for Kerry’s diplomatic efforts, Ghani threw his backing behind US calls for a wide audit of the elections.
“Our commitment is to ensure that the election process enjoys the integrity and the legitimacy of the people of Afghanistan and the world,” Ghani told reporters as the two men met. “Therefore we believe in the most intensive and extensive audit possible to restore faith.”
UN officials late Thursday presented a plan to outgoing Karzai to audit polling stations across 34 provinces.
These would be selected according to five criteria that could indicate voting fraud - such as whether the results were multiples of 50, or where women’s polling stations were staffed by men.
“These criteria would create an audit that entails 8,050 polling stations (35 percent of all polling stations) and 3.5 million ballots (44 percent of all ballots cast),” the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said in a statement.
A Ghani campaign official, Azita Rafaat, told AFP they had “accepted the audit of those polling stations”.
Abdullah’s team said they were reviewing the proposal, but campaign spokesman Fazal Sancharaki gave a sceptical response, saying: “This proposal prepared by the UN includes part of demands, but not all of our demands.
“This is an incomplete proposal, it’s not an inclusive one.”
The stakes could not be higher, as the next president will have to steer the war-torn country as international troops withdraw, leaving Afghan forces to fight a bloody, stubbornly resilient Taliban insurgency. Abdullah thanked Kerry for the continued US support and for “the sacrifices that your people have done alongside the Afghans”.
But he said that “the future of our achievement depends upon the success of the democratic process”.
The election row has sparked fears that protests could spiral into ethnic violence - and even lead to a return of the fighting between warlords that ravaged Afghanistan during the 1992-1996 civil war.
And in a measure of US concern, Kerry met late Friday with members of the Afghan security team including the defence and interior ministers. The UN officials said a thorough audit would take up to two weeks, but some Afghan officials are still pressing to stick by an election calendar that would see the new president inaugurated on August 2.
After more than 13 years of war following the 2001 US invasion to oust the hardline Taliban regime, President Barack Obama has said all American forces will be withdrawn by the end of 2016.
The 30,000 US troops on the ground will be whittled down to 9,800 next year.
The Obama administration is also desperately waiting for Afghan leaders to sign a bilateral pact governing the presence of US forces in the country beyond this year.
Karzai walked away from the deal, but both presidential candidates have said that they would sign it.