KABUL — Ashraf Ghani, one of two candidates competing to become Afghanistan’s president, said Tuesday that the deadline to finish a vote recount is slipping and that a U.S.-brokered agreement for the rivals to form a joint government afterward does not mean the winner will fully share power with the loser.
Speaking to foreign journalists at his fortified compound in the capital, Ghani appeared to be trying to tamp down a surge of discontent among his supporters and allies, many of whom are reportedly upset that he agreed under U.S. pressure to a full recount of ballots from the troubled presidential runoff in June and the formation of a “unity” government with his rival.
On Friday, Ghani restated those pledges during a visit by Secretary of State John F. Kerry. But on Tuesday, he sought to clarify that he has not agreed to a power-sharing agreement with former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah. Ghani said the winner will appoint the loser “by decree” as a chief executive to serve “at the discretion of the president.” Abdullah has demanded more authority if he loses.
Ghani also said Tuesday that although he “hoped” the audit of 8.1 million votes could be done in time to have the new president attend a NATO summit in early September, no inauguration date has been set because of “technical uncertainties” with the slow-going ballot review. He said both he and Abdullah will attend the summit, considered key to winning new foreign aid for the ailing Afghan economy.
Ghani finished ahead in the runoff but accepted the recount after Abdullah, who came in first in an initial round of voting in April, charged that there had been massive fraud. Ghani was careful Tuesday not to claim victory. But he spoke in a distinctly presidential tone as he laid out a wide-ranging policy agenda for the next government, including banking and anti-corruption initiatives as well as the rights of women and Taliban prisoners.
“There will be no honeymoon,” said Ghani, 64, a cerebral former finance minister and World Bank official, describing the Afghan economy as being “in deep recession” approaching depression. He said running for president “appealed to me precisely because it was so difficult.”
Ghani said he was determined to build a credible government and change the country’s “winner-take-all” culture to a cooperative one. Blaming Afghanistan’s quarrelsome political elite for 300 years of government dysfunction and conflict, he vowed to avoid such polarization. “I’m sick and tired of blood,” he said.
But Ghani made it clear that if he becomes president — which seems likely unless close to 1 million votes for him are invalidated — he will be fully in charge. “Dual authority is not possible,” he said. “The position of the chief executive will solely depend on the discretion of the president.”
Many Afghans are confused about the nature of the unprecedented joint-governing agreement made under pressure from the United States as the election process was rapidly collapsing. They are also worried about a resurgence of violence among the dominant Pashtun and Tajik ethnic groups, although both candidates pointedly courted strongmen from diverse backgrounds.
After the fraud-marred June 14 runoff, some of Abdullah’s ethnic Tajik supporters threatened to take power by force if he was declared the loser. Now, some of Ghani’s fellow ethnic Pashtun supporters fear that Abdullah, if he loses, will be given too much power to fill lucrative government posts and will function more like a prime minister. Ghani took pains Tuesday to squelch this notion.
Yet, despite Kerry’s prodding and pledges from both men to work together no matter who wins, neither candidate has laid out a detailed vision for how that would work, and both are still forming teams to meet and discuss these issues.
Ghani acknowledged Tuesday that until a clear winner emerges from the vote audit, any discussions between the candidates will be speculative. American and U.N. officials have urged them to start working out a governing plan before the audit is done and a new president takes office.
The audit, suspended three times amid partisan disputes, has resumed slowly over the past week. Each day, about 700 boxes on average have been counted. By Monday, election officials reported that 5,867 boxes — about 26 percent of the total — had been audited.
U.S. and U.N. officials want the ballot recount to be both thorough and speedy, in the hope that it will end the nation’s power vacuum, help cement a new security pact with the United States and help Afghanistan obtain new aid from NATO countries. On Monday, U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham said the NATO summit would be a “very important opportunity for the new president to reaffirm Afghanistan’s engagement under a new government with many of its international partners.”
But the audit, while gathering some speed, is still plagued by time-consuming disputes. At one recount table this week, monitors for Abdullah complained that a box from Kandahar province, a pro-Ghani area, had arrived with the seals broken and should be thrown out, but officials insisted that all 600 ballots had to be examined.
At another table, where a box from pro-Abdullah Herat province was being discussed, a monitor from Ghani’s side kept saying that all the check marks for Abdullah were similar. A long argument broke out in Dari, Pashto and English, piles of ballots were sorted and resorted, and no one could agree on how many varieties of “similar” check marks existed.
“You need to have patience. You need to give me time,” said a U.N. official assisting the audit, trying to quiet the cacophony as he went through yet another pile. “We all want to get this done, but we have to do it right.”