Ghani Poised for Victory in Afghanistan Presidential Race

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai won an initial count to become Afghanistan’s next president while agreeing with his opponent to audits of the vote that the U.S. said may change the outcome of the country’s first power transfer since 2001.

Ghani, a former finance minister, took 56 percent of the vote, with ex-foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah getting 44 percent, Ahmad Yusuf Nuristani, chairman of the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, told reporters in Kabul yesterday. The two camps agreed to audit the results of about a third of all polling stations in response to concerns of fraud.

“Today’s results do not suggest the final results, as it is highly possible to have it altered after investigation of fraud and violations of the elections,” Nuristani said, adding that final results were scheduled to be released on July 22.

Failure to secure a deal risks unrest in one of Asia’s poorest countries and further delays to a pact that’s needed to keep U.S. troops in Afghanistan beyond this year. Both candidates have said they would sign the agreement, with Ghani saying the aid money that would follow is essential to pay Afghan soldiers as they fight Taliban insurgents who ran the country before the U.S. invasion in 2001.

U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki also said the results aren’t final and could change after election officials investigate fraud. About 3 million ballots may be affected, she said, adding that neither side should claim victory yet.

U.S. Warning

“We call on all Afghan leaders to maintain calm in order to preserve the gains of the last decade and maintain the trust of the Afghan people,” Secretary of State John Kerry said in a statement. “Any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan the financial and security support of the United States and the international community.”

The election commission delayed announcing the preliminary results for five days to investigate fraud complaints. Nuristani said 100,000 of the more than 8 million ballots were discarded due to fraud. Ghani finished with about 4.5 million votes, he said, with Abdullah taking 3.5 million.

The two sides agreed to audit votes in 7,000 polling stations, or about a third of the total, Sayed Fazel Sancharaki, a spokesman for Abdullah, said by phone. The candidate had expected a total of 7 million votes, close to the number in the first round of voting, and wanted 11,000 polling stations checked for fraud, Sancharaki said.

“For the sake of stability and democracy, we agreed with Abdullah’s team to audit and investigate 7,000 polling stations,” Azita Rafat, a spokeswoman for Ghani, said by phone, adding that they wouldn’t agree to further audits.

Abdullah Complaints

Abdullah, the runner-up in the 2009 election, won 45 percent of 7 million votes in the first round of the election on April 5, with Ghani taking 32 percent. Both fell short of the 50 percent needed to avoid a runoff.

Abdullah has sought to void about 2.5 million votes in southern and eastern regions, saying the number of ballots exceeded the population in certain areas. One senior election official he had accused of fraud resigned last month.

“A disputed result could threaten the country’s fragile democracy and stability,” Faizullah Jalal, an economics professor at Kabul University, said by phone. “The international community must intervene and coordinate with Afghan institutions to find a way for its resolution otherwise we may experience another civil war and national crisis.”

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry last week called President Hamid Karzai, who refused to sign the troop pact, and stressed the importance of national unity and a peaceful election process. Karzai, in power since 2001, is constitutionally barred from standing for a third term.

Ethnic Conflict

The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan said last month that the elections “were better managed and more advanced than those previously” and called on Abdullah to cooperate in the vote-counting process. It also warned against moves from either side that might ignite ethnic conflict.

Ghani, who has also submitted election complaints, urged Abdullah to rejoin the vote-counting process. He rejected calls to form a coalition with Abdullah.

“We assure people that we will not betray their votes,” Ghani told reporters in Kabul on July 5.

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.

Abdullah, 53, is half-Pashtun and half-Tajik. He was a close aide to Northern Alliance commander Ahmad Shah Massoud, 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.

Pashtuns account for 42 percent of Afghanistan’s 32 million people, while Tajiks make up 27 percent, according to the CIA World Factbook. In the 1990s, after the Soviet Union withdrew, factional fighting killed thousands of people and led ultimately to the Taliban regime, which was ousted by the U.S. after the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.

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