ISLAMABAD - The internationally supervised, slow-moving audit of 8.1 million Afghan votes from last month’s disputed presidential runoff resumed Sunday, a day after differences between the rival candidates over ballot scrutiny led to its temporary suspension.
The audit began Thursday under the direct supervision of the United Nations and in the presence of the candidates’ agents, media, and foreign and local observers.
But the process has been marred by walkouts by representatives of presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.
The latest dispute emerged Saturday when differences on how to treat ballot papers not signed “properly” by voters prompted the Independent Election Commission to suspend the audit.
But the commission said with the help of U.N. experts the audit resumed Sunday.
Analysts anticipated problems from the outset because there were no “clearly defined rules.”
“It felt like the referee had blown his whistle and the football match had started, not almost quite sure what a goal was," said Kate Clark of the Kabul-based Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN), who has been closely monitoring the vote scrutiny.
"So it was bound to cause trouble, because at the moment it is a technical issue, but it is also deeply, deeply political, and actually both teams are looking for how they can maximize their share of the vote,” she said.
Last week U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry persuaded the candidates to agree to a full audit of the contentious runoff vote.
Candidate Abdullah had alleged “industrial scale fraud” with the support of outgoing President Hamid Karzai to help Ghani, and the Ghani campaign accused Abdullah of vote rigging in his traditional political strongholds.
But in the Kerry-mediated agreement, Abdullah and Ghani committed to abide by the audit results.
“There is significant international community oversight as well as candidate oversight in the process of counting those ballots. The most encouraging thing is both candidates are very responsible they know the consequence of the political transition process and they have agreed to accept the outcome of the ballot with certain parameters and those parameters are now in place," said General Joseph Dunford, U.S. Commander of NATO-led forces in Afghanistan.
In comments last week, Dunford said he is optimistic the process - and outcome - will be accepted by both candidates and the Afghan people.
Analyst Clark said a key NATO conference is scheduled September 3 to devise Afghanistan's future plans, and the country can barely afford further delays in its much-awaited political transitions.
“NATO wants to get things sorted. It wants the BSA, the Bilateral Security Agreement, signed with America. If President Karzai is still in place, that will not be signed and NATO cannot begin to start planning for post-2014 military support the Afghans need. That is why there is a sense of urgency but of course it depends on the audit and it is going painfully slow at the moment,” Clark said.
Most NATO-led forces will withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of this year.
A security agreement between Kabul and Washington to allow a residual foreign force to stay in the country for counterterrorism missions, advising, assisting and equipping Afghan forces, is awaiting signatures by the new Afghan president, because Karzai has refused to do so and left it for his successor.