ISLAMABAD - Seeking a resolution to Afghanistan's bitter election dispute, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday held separate talks with rival Afghan presidential candidates and outgoing President Hamid Karzai in Kabul.
Discussions will continue for a second day in Kabul on Saturday, as allegations of ballot fraud rattle the country.
Abdullah Abdullah and his political rival Ashraf Ghani both claim victory in the June 14 runoff to replace the outgoing president. Preliminary results show Abdullah trailing Ghani by about one million votes, but Abdullah rejects those results and has alleged widespread fraud and ballot-box stuffing. Abdullah's supporters have been urging him to establish his own government.
The controversy has worried Afghanistan’s U.S.-led international backers as it threatens to revive deeply rooted ethnic Afghan rivalries and undermine a decade long U.S.-led international effort to politically and economically stabilize the country.
The U.N.'s two-week plan would review 3.5 million ballots from 8,050 polling stations, which is about 44 percent of all ballots cast.
While Ghani's camp supports the proposal, Abdullah is asking for a more far-reaching review.
U.S. officials say Kerry's mission is to convince Ghani and Abdullah to refrain from declaring victory until an audit of extensive vote fraud allegations is conducted.
Kerry told reporters after a meeting with the top U.N. representative in Kabul that “we are in a very, very critical moment for Afghanistan”, saying “the future potential of the transition hangs in the balance” a lot of work needs to be done.
In a meeting with Kerry, Ghani, a former World Bank official, said he agreed with U.S. calls for a thorough review of fraud allegations.
"Our commitment is to ensure that the election process enjoys the integrity and the legitimacy that the people of Afghanistan and the world will believe," Ghani said. "Therefore we believe in the most intensive and extensive audit possible to restore faith."
Ghani’s chief spokesman Daud Sultanzio told VOA that the presidential candidate’s meeting with Kerry was held in a "very positive and constructive environment," and that Ghani has accepted a U.N. proposal for an extensive audit of more than 8,000 polling stations, a demand Abdullah recently put forward.
“Discussions [involved] the election issues of the second round and also [United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan] proposals, including triggers for audit," he said. "These audits will be conducting audits of 8,100 polling stations which would consist of 3.5 million votes. We have already indicated our acceptance of this proposal and I hope and we invite Dr. Abdullah and his team also to join us in accepting their own proposal so we can move the process ahead and remove these uncertainties in the country.”
Abdullah spokesman Muslim Sadaat told VOA that Kerry held “only a preliminary” meeting with the presidential candidate without going into details.
“But we are willing to meet them again and talk about a solution for the electoral deadlock," he said. "John Kerry said that [he is] here in Afghanistan to find a solution for this process. Dr. Abdullah once again talked to the U.S. secretary of state regarding the process, problems and challenges that they face, problems and challenges that were inside the [Election and Electoral Complaints] Commissions.”
Abdullah, a former foreign minister, alleges that President Karzai, the election commission and the Ghani campaign colluded to organize ballot box stuffing, charges that have been denied.
Abdullah topped the first round of presidential elections in April but did not win more than 50 percent of the vote. Ghani is leading the runoff vote by about a million votes.
Kerry already has warned Abdullah against using extra-legal means to grab power after his running mate talked about setting up a parallel government.
The United States says it does not take sides in the election, but does support a credible transparent process.
As Kerry arrived in Kabul, dozens of protestors blocked a road near the city's international airport, with one man calling for a "political settlement" between the candidates. Another said Afghanistan needed to resolve the election internally, without Kerry's help.
Related video report by VOA's Meredith Buel, "Kerry Holds Talks in Kabul About Afghan Political Crisis":