Afghan vote audit suspended again over disagreement

KABUL: Afghanistan’s election commission on Saturday once again suspended the auditing process of 8.1 million votes cast in the presidential run-off poll, after the two candidates failed to agree on the procedure for invalidating fraudulent votes.
“The Independent Election Commission (IEC) has decided to suspend temporarily the vote audit until the fourth day of Eid, and we hope it is enough time for the candidates to sort out their differences,” the IEC chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani told a press conference Saturday. 
The Muslim Eid festival expected to begin on Monday or Tuesday marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. “The votes audit goes very slowly, the representatives of the candidates have walked out of the auditing process for the third time in the past ten days over differences of opinion,” Nuristani said Saturday.
The audit was briefly suspended a week ago by a dispute over vote count records deemed void by one candidate’s team as they lacked a full name and signature. Saturday’s suspension came shortly after the United Nations said that both candidates had indicated they support a UN proposal with specific criteria for invalidating fraudulent ballots in the audit process.
The procedure for dealing with fraud is the primary point of contention between the two sides, but they also disagree on other technical aspects of the process. Meanwhile US President Barack Obama called both candidates on Friday night asking them to endorse their previous agreement over the outcome of the election audit and the formation of a national unity government. 
“Noting that the audit is steadily progressing, the president encouraged both candidates to publicly endorse their previously agreed political framework and continue their dialogue,” said a readout of the phone call. The inspection of all 8.1 million ballots cast in the June 14 run-off was agreed by rival candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, following a deal brokered two weeks ago by US Secretary of State John Kerry. The IEC had said it would take around three weeks, with teams working in two shifts processing around 1,000 ballot boxes a day.
But since the start of the process, in which hundreds of national and international observers have crammed into the IEC in Kabul to separate fraudulent ballots from clean ones, the audit has been lagging behind schedule with just 1,361 out of some 23,000 ballot boxes completed as of Friday. This has raised concerns that the original timeframe for completing the process is unlikely to be kept, and that the audit could take until late August to finish. That in turn would further push back the already delayed inauguration of the new Afghan president.
Abdullah, who draws most of his support from Tajiks and other northern Afghan groups, led after the first round of voting, but preliminary results of the run-off announced on July 7 showed Ghani, whose support base is mainly among the Pashtun tribes of the south and east, ahead by over one million votes. Abdullah rejected the result, saying that most of his opponent’s ballots were fraudulent. The bitter impasse over the vote to succeed President Hamid Karzai, following Abdullah’s claims of massive fraud, had raised fears of a return to the ethnic violence of the 1990s.
The election disputes also comes as Afghanistan is gripped by a Taliban-led insurgency, ahead of US-led NATO forces withdrawal by the end of the year, with the militant group staging regular attacks targeting Afghan and foreign forces. The militants have been testing the capacity of the Afghan forces, with a major assault in the southern province of Helmand last month which was pushed back after weeks of heavy fighting that left hundreds of Afghan civilians as well as security personnel dead or injured. 

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