A United Nations-supervised anti-fraud audit of all 8.1 million ballots from Afghanistan’s June 14 presidential runoff has resumed following a brief suspension Wednesday, when the rival candidates withdrew their observers from the process.
The world body says it does not anticipate significant disruptions through the rest of the audit, intended to support the war-ravaged country’s first democratic transition of power. The visiting chief of the U.N.’s Kabul mission met in Islamabad with Pakistani leaders to seek their support for the Afghan political transition.
The large-scale audit of the hotly disputed runoff vote is part of a U.S.-brokered deal that binds both Afghan presidential rivals, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, to accept the final outcome and work toward forming a government of national unity.
More than 70 percent of nearly 23,000 ballot boxes have been audited with observers from the candidates' teams taking part, and independent foreign and local observers on close watch. But the vote scrutiny, which began six weeks ago at the Afghan election commission’s headquarters in Kabul, has been hampered repeatedly due to disputes and walkouts by Ghani's and Abdullah's representatives.
The latest disruption occurred Wednesday when Abdullah pulled his observers from the audit. His team members alleged their demands to broaden the criteria to identify fraud were not entertained by U.N. supervisors. Hours later, Ghani announced he too was disengaging his team from the process.
U.N. Mission Deputy Chief Nicholas Haysom told reporters later in the day the U.N. seriously considers all issues raised by either of the candidates and is determined to work closely with them to conclude the audit expeditiously.
“In light of Dr. Abdullah’s team’s decision not to participate further in the audit and in the interest of protecting the integrity of the audit process, today we requested the team of Dr. Ghani to review whether they should participate actively in the process. Dr. Ghani’s team have agreed to withdraw from active participation in the audit process. And from the U.N.’s prospective, we have assured both parties that we have and will continue to be impartial, uniform and consistent in our interventions," said Haysom.
He says the U.N. asked Ghani’s team to pull its observers to ensure the audit can be seen to be even-handed by all Afghans.
“So, the audit will now proceed to its conclusion without the direct physical engagement of representatives of either of the presidential candidates. There was a pause this morning but the audit has resumed this afternoon and we do not anticipate any significant disruption through the process going forward…We continue to urge the return of both candidates to full participation in the process and we stand ready to address their concerns whether they return or not," he said.
While both Ghani and Abdullah have given assurances to U.N. and U.S. mediators they will cooperate politically to steer Afghanistan out of the current crisis, analysts say disputes during the audit process appear to be aimed at putting pressure to seek more concessions from the other side before agreeing to set up a so-called national unity government.
But the election crisis, many believe, is hurting economic and security gains Afghanistan has made with the support of the global community. Critics say the deepening political crisis is likely to benefit the Taliban insurgency.
Meanwhile, representatives from both sides say talks on a political framework ahead of forming the government are underway between Ghani and Abdullah. But some analysts question the sincerity of these talks despite public pledges by both candidates to work together.
Naeem Ayubzada is among the hundreds of independent Afghan experts taking part in the audit of the runoff vote. He says civil society groups are urging both candidates to quickly resolve the political turmoil to end the uncertainty gripping their war-torn country.
“The only option for Afghanistan is to continue and finish the audit process properly based on the current laws and regulations. But still, you know, the candidates unfortunately challenge the process because it seems they did not come up with a real political agreement and they know the results will not guarantee their impression in the process," said Ayubzada.
Outgoing Afghan President Hamid Karzai has been urging both candidates to cooperate with election authorities to conclude the audit so his successor is sworn and is able to represent the country at a NATO meeting next week that will discuss post-2014 financial and military plans for Afghanistan.
On Wednesday, the U.N. secretary-general's representative to Kabul, Juan Kubis, held talks with leaders in neighboring Pakistan. Foreign ministry officials in Islamabad say Kubis sought support of all the neighbors of Afghanistan for the political transition in the strife-torn county. Pakistan, they say, reiterated its resolve in helping those efforts.