ISLAMABAD - Thousands of supporters of a leading presidential candidate in Afghanistan rallied Friday in the capital, Kabul, demanding election officials halt the ongoing vote recount process to prevent alleged electoral fraud.
Abdullah Abdullah, the country’s incumbent chief executive, organized Friday’s protests in a bid to force the Afghan Independent Election Commission (IEC) not to recount around 300,000 “fraudulent ballots” that he alleges, if counted, would lead to a disputed outcome in favor of his rival, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani.
Allegations of fraud and technical problems have forced the IEC to repeatedly delay its announcement of preliminary results from the September 28 presidential polls. A second round of voting will be held if no candidate secures more than 50% of the vote.
Lack of preparedness, technological challenges and anti-election violence orchestrated by Taliban insurgents contributed to the lowest-ever turnout in the polls, according to Afghan officials.
Afghan television channels broadcast video of demonstrators marching in several parts of the city before gathering in downtown Kabul's Pashtunistan Square near the presidential palace. Authorities had blocked routes to the area for security reasons but could not stop protesters.
Demonstrators chanted “no to fraud” and demanded the IEC remove “fake votes” from the recount process. The rallies later dispersed peacefully.
Supporters of Abdullah and several other candidates have blocked election officials from auditing and recounting suspected votes in seven of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces.
The head of IEC, Hawa Alam Nuristani, told reporters on Thursday the recount process has been completed in 26 provinces and was underway in one province. She urged protesting candidates to abide by the law and allow IEC staff to complete the process.
Until then, Nuristani said she would not be able to set a clear date to release the results. She dismissed allegations her commission is siding with Ghani and vowed to deliver a transparent outcome.
The election controversy has raised fears of a repeat of months of political turmoil following the fraud-marred 2014 presidential election because both Ghani and Abdullah had claimed victories.
The crisis was averted after the United States intervened and mediated a power-sharing deal between the two candidates that resulted in a fragile national unity government currently in place in Kabul.
The latest political crisis complicates efforts by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration to promote a negotiated end to years of Afghan hostilities that would allow fewer than 14,000 U.S. troops to withdraw from the country.
Friday’s protests came a day after Trump made an unannounced Thanksgiving visit, his first, to American troops at Bagram Air Field, north of Kabul. He disclosed during his brief stay that he had restarted peace talks with the Taliban, asserting that insurgent group wanted to have a deal with the U.S.
Trump had himself abruptly terminated the year-long dialogue in early September, citing continued deadly Taliban attacks. One of those attacks in Kabul killed an American soldier among others.
The disruption in talks came at a stage when the two sides had come close to signing an agreement that could have set the stage for a phased withdrawal of U.S. forces in return for the Taliban’s counterterrorism assurances and its participation in intra-Afghan peace negotiations.