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Afghan election audit hits another snag

By Pamela Constable The Washington Post

This article was published August 3, 2014 at 3:27 a.m.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- In a new setback to Afghanistan's presidential election process, plans to resume a suspended full-ballot audit Saturday were aborted when one of the two finalists refused to participate.

The move embarrassed United Nations officials, who had just announced confidently that the inspection would begin immediately after three weeks of disputes and delays. Over the weekend, hundreds of international monitors arrived in the Afghan capital to monitor the audit.

It was part of a high-profile effort to salvage a political transition for Afghanistan's stability and its relations with Washington and other Western powers.

Jan Kubis, head of the U.N. political mission in Afghanistan, declared Friday that "any delays, any uncertainties would have a major negative impact" on the country's future. "It's high time to complete the process ... and inaugurate the new president."

But by midmorning Saturday, it was clear that something was amiss. The high-security facility where thousands of ballot boxes have been collected was nearly empty of people.

Aides to one candidate, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, arrived to start observing the audit, but no one associated with his rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, appeared.

"They were the ones who asked for the audit, and now they're not showing up for it," complained Daoud Sultanzoy, an Ahmadzai campaign aide who arrived at the Independent Election Commission compound at 7 a.m. "They know they've lost, and they're looking for excuses."

But senior aides to Abdullah, who spent the day negotiating behind closed doors with U.N. officials, insisted they had legitimate grievances about the audit. They charged it was being run by Afghan election officials who had abetted pro-Ahmadzai fraud at the polls and that the review had not been designed rigorously enough to unearth what they called a vast, elaborate scheme to rob Abdullah of victory.

"This audit is our absolute highest priority, but at this point we feel it is not robust or credible enough to dig out the massive, sophisticated fraud that took place," Mahmoud Saiqal, a senior campaign aide to Abdullah, said in an interview late Saturday. "This is a war for democracy, and we are going to keep fighting hard against the fraud. Otherwise this will be the end of democracy in Afghanistan."

Kubis said Saturday that the audit would be delayed by only one more day, saying that Abdullah's campaign had requested the extra time for "clarifications" on the audit process. He noted that both candidates had formally agreed to the audit in U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's presence and added that "after today's consultations ... we expect that the process of the audit will continue smoothly and without any interruptions."

Although Saiqal said that "some progress" had been made in their talks, he did not hold out much hope that the remaining issues would be solved by today. Among other things, Abdullah is demanding that any post-audit power-sharing arrangement give the runner-up authority to appoint some Cabinet members, governors and other officials. Ahmadzai has said this would not be acceptable.

The dispute is rooted in the lopsided results of two rounds of presidential polling. Abdullah won the first round in April by a narrow but solid margin; the election commission called for a runoff in June and announced afterward that Ahmadzai had beaten him badly.

Abdullah's team protested and produced evidence that election officials had colluded with pro-Ahmadzai fraud.

With the transition near collapse, the election commission chief was fired and Kerry stepped in to propose the audit and joint-governing arrangement, but disputes between the two camps arose almost immediately and the audit had to be halted three times.

A Section on 08/03/2014

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