Afghans Count Votes With Peaceful Power Transition at Stake

Afghan election officials began counting votes from a presidential runoff two days ago as the world waits to see whether it can complete its first peaceful transfer of power since the U.S. invasion in 2001.

Abdullah Abdullah, who won the most votes in the first round of the election on April 5, is trying to stave off ex-finance minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in a runoff. Partial election results will start to be released from July 2, with final results announced July 22.

“No one can guarantee there won’t be dispute,” Ahmad Saeedi, a former Afghan diplomat in Pakistan, said in a phone interview. “Many members of both teams are ex-warlords who were accused of Afghan civilian killings in the past four decades.”

The winner faces the challenge of boosting growth in one of Asia’s poorest economies while fighting Taliban insurgents as the U.S. reduces troops in the country. Both candidates have pledged to sign a deal rejected by President Hamid Karzai that will keep American soldiers in the country beyond this year.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration praised the election, calling it “a significant step forward on Afghanistan’s democratic path.” Obama said last month that U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be reduced to 9,800 by the end of this year, with only a small force at the embassy by the end of 2016, when he will be preparing to leave office.

Election Complaints

Abdullah accused Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, chief electoral officer of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission, of electoral “fraud” and said he won’t accept the results unless Amarkhil is “removed from his current position.” Police this week stopped a car that had been transporting unused ballots on Amarkhil’s orders, Mohammad Zahir Zahir, Kabul police chief, told reporters June 14.

Election Commission Chairman Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani rejected Abdullah’s allegation and said Amarkhil wanted to transfer the ballots to a polling station facing lack of materials, ToloNews reported, citing Nuristani.

The Independent Electoral Complaints Commission of Afghanistan received about 170 accusations of fraud during the June 14 vote, and will accept more today before a midnight deadline, Nadir Muhseni, a spokesman for the body, told reporters. More than 2,000 complaints were filed in the first round in April.

“Complaints that are upheld may affect the outcome of election,” Muhseni said yesterday.

Taliban Attacks

More than seven million voters cast ballots on June 14 despite Taliban calls for attacks on voters. The Taliban cut off the ink-stained fingers of 11 voters in Western Herat province, Mohammad Ayub Salangi, Afghanistan’s deputy interior minister, said by phone.

Twenty civilians, 15 soldiers and 11 policemen were killed in at least 150 militant attacks throughout the country that wounded more than 40 others, Interior Minister Mohammad Omar Daudzai told reporters in Kabul. Dozens of militants were killed and wounded, he said.

Abdullah survived a recent suicide attack in Kabul that killed six people, underscoring the risk of violence after the Taliban vowed to disrupt the vote.

Some of the attacks targeted polling stations, while others consisted of rocket launches and roadside bombs, according to Daudzai. About 400,000 members of the Afghan National Security Forces were deployed to help with security.

The Taliban in a June 11 statement called for “nonstop” attacks on election day “so that the enemy is paralyzed and this process is aborted.” Fresh elections must be held if a presidential candidate dies before the declaration of election results, according to the constitution.

Stability, Prosperity

Karzai, constitutionally barred from running for a third consecutive five-year term, called the election “successful” while offering condolences for victims of the violence.

“Afghans once again moved Afghanistan towards stability and prosperity by casting their votes,” Karzai said in an e-mailed statement.

Abdullah won 45 percent of more than 7 million votes on April 5, with Ghani taking 32 percent. Turnout was twice what it was in the previous presidential election in 2009. A runoff was necessary because no candidate took more than 50 percent of votes.

Ghani and Abdullah have picked up endorsements from other candidates after the first round and both say they are confident of winning. Abdullah received the backing of third-place finisher Zalmai Rassoul, whose vice presidential candidate is backing Ghani.

Ethnic Divide

Abdullah, 53, is half Pashtun and half Tajik. As foreign minister under Karzai, he was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Masood, an ethnic Tajik seen by many Afghans as a national hero for fighting against Soviet occupiers in the 1980s and the Taliban in the 1990s.

Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun who served as Afghanistan’s finance minister from 2002-2004 and finished fourth in the 2009 election. He holds a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Columbia University in New York.

Pashtuns account for 42 percent of Afghanistan’s 32 million people, while Tajiks make up 27 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook.

“The Afghan people have shown their commitment to democracy and the Afghan forces their capability to secure these historic elections,” NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said in Ankara, Turkey, today. “It is now essential that any allegation of irregularities are addressed through the established mechanisms and that both candidates respect the final results.”

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