KABUL: One of two candidates competing to succeed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai threatened yesterday to pull out of a UN-backed audit of a disputed presidential election.
The investigation is part of a US-brokered deal between presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, both of whom claim to have won the election that was hoped would usher in Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power.
The crisis over the outcome of the vote has raised the spectre of another round of war in Afghanistan, already torn apart by decades of fighting.
Yesterday, Abdullah’s team said the United Nations had until today to accept their demands to widen the criteria for identifying and discarding ballots deemed fraudulent from a June run-off vote.
“If our demands are not taken into account we will not recognise the legitimacy of the process,” said Abdullah’s spokesman, Mujib Rahman Rahimi.
Abdullah’s supporters think that the more fraudulent votes are thrown out, the more likely he is to win.
Rahimi said if the audit went ahead without accepting Abdullah’s demands, his camp would not recognise any future government as legitimate - a dangerous prospect likely to deepen ethnic and political divisions.
Afghanistan was plunged into turmoil in April when Abdullah, a former foreign minister, led after a first-round vote but failed to secure an outright majority.
He trailed behind former finance minister Ghani in the June run-off, according to preliminary figures, and has since rejected the outcome, accusing Ghani’s team of rigging the vote with Karzai’s help - an accusation both Ghani and Karzai have rejected.
The crisis comes at a time of much anxiety in Afghanistan as the United States, Kabul’s biggest aid donor, and other Nato nations withdraw their troops after nearly 13 years of fighting Taliban insurgents.
Interminable chaos as Western forces pull out would be a huge embarrassment for those countries which have spent billions of dollars and lost about 3,500 soldiers in a bid to bring peace and stability.
Karzai, who is not allowed by the constitution to run for the presidency again, has urged both candidates to respect the terms of the US-brokered deal.
“President Karzai has started a series of meetings and consultations with both candidates,” said his spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
“Tonight he is meeting with Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani to ask them to cooperate with the political process.”
The United Nations said it was reviewing the latest complaints by Abdullah’s team but said the electoral process would continue regardless.
“The candidates already explicitly committed to accepting the result of the audit,” it said in a statement. “Should one campaign choose not to participate in the conclusion of the enormous exercise which they requested... (The UN and observers) will increase their participation so as to ensure the continuing credibility of the process.”
Abdullah’s refusal to accept the outcome of the vote threatens to split the country along ethnic lines and possibly setting the stage for more violence.
Afghan officials and diplomats worry there are too many powerful interests competing for power and they fear clashes between power-brokers could quickly escalate, although few expect any immediate outbreak of hostilities.
Western powers hope a new leader will be in place before September 4, when a Nato summit is due to be held in Wales.
Countries at the summit will weigh how much aid Afghanistan will get after most foreign troops pull out.
“God forbid,” said one senior diplomat, commenting on the likelihood of conflict. “More negotiations, bargaining threats, but hopefully locals will find a solution.”
Ghani’s team played down the significance of the threat from Abdullah’s representatives, saying it indicated Abdullah, who is expected to return from India yesterday, had poor control over his camp.
“Abdullah is out of the country and every time he is out of the country, the team make their own statements,” said Ajmal Abidi, a spokesman.
Another source in Abdullah’s camp said Abdullah himself was not against talks: “Abdullah still sees room for negotiation, but it is true he doesn’t have much control over his own powerful men.”