KABUL — Afghanistan’s troubled presidential vote audit resumed Sunday, but one candidate’s team continued to boycott the review and issued wildly mixed signals about its intentions while the other candidate’s agents bickered endlessly over which ballots seemed suspicious.
The confusion and melodrama hinted at a deepening disaster at a crucial moment in Afghanistan’s transition to full democratic rule, which is occurring as Taliban insurgent violence continues and Western troops pull out.
Although the election process is now technically back on track after weeks of delays and disagreements, and both candidates are under international pressure to accept the results and get a new president installed, it seemed clear that political pique and mistrust over the crucial issue of fraud can still derail the entire exercise.
Officials from the United Nations, the U.S. Embassy and the Afghan election commission tried to put a positive face on the situation, but their efforts were overshadowed by a stream of belligerent and contradictory comments from the camps of presidential rivals Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.
While officials stressed that both sides had agreed on the general framework for the audit and a joint governing plan after a winner is declared — the essence of a deal brokered by Secretary of State John F. Kerry last month — they were vague on many of the details and implied that key differences remained unresolved.
U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham, in a phone conversation with journalists Sunday evening, praised statements from the United Nations and Abdullah’s campaign indicating he had decided to rejoin the audit, calling it “welcome news.” The ambassador “commended both candidates” for their commitment to the audit and the political process.
Meanwhile, however, a spokesman for Abdullah lambasted the audit as a “show” with “no legitimacy,” while his campaign released new evidence of what it called official collusion in pro-Ghani fraud by aides to outgoing President Hamid Karzai. Another Abullah aide said it “came as a surprise” that the audit was resuming Sunday.
The flurry of confusing statements came amid mounting international pressure and Afghan public impatience to restart the election process, which has been repeatedly stalled by disputes since a second round of polling in mid-June appeared to have been marred by widespread fraud in favor of Ghani, a former Afghan finance minister and World Bank official.
As of Sunday morning, the audit was still suspended and Abdullah’s team was still locked in talks with U.N. officials over the recount, which they had threatened to boycott unless the process was changed to probe more deeply into the allegations of fraud and was placed more firmly under international control.
At 2 p.m., Afghan election officials suddenly announced the audit would resume immediately, without Abdullah’s participation. The election spokesman said he hoped the campaign would decide to rejoin the audit, adding that “the door . . . is open to them.”
Five hours later, even as harsh comments were spewing from Abdullah’s camp, U.N. officials announced that the former Afghan foreign minister had agreed to rejoin the audit Monday after the United Nations “clarified” certain details and agreed to make any needed changes in the method of invalidating ballots. This was a key demand of Abdullah.
Yet during the afternoon, as the audit began to gear up again in high-security warehouses full of huge plastic ballot boxes, it was the Ghani campaign’s agents who aggressively denounced the process, arguing in defense of almost every ballot that U.N. and Afghan election officials decided might be suspicious.
At one table, a single box of 600 ballots from Logar Province — among 8.1 million ballots that need to be audited — took three hours to review as Ghani supporters clashed constantly with U.N. experts. Officially, Ghani had trounced Abdullah there by 583 votes to 14, but the U.N. experts noticed that many of the ballots for Ghani had identical check marks. Ghani aides insisted they did not look similar, or that polling aides had helped illiterate voters mark their choices.
“There’s a pattern here. These are absolutely identical. They were checked by the same person,” U.N official Neil McCann insisted repeatedly.
“How can you prove that? They don’t look similar to me,” retorted a Ghani aide.
The same argument erupted dozens of times, while the pile of suspect blue ballots rose and the sun sank outside the open warehouse doors.