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A Bitter Election Dispute Sends Afghanistan Back to the Brink

A Bitter Election Dispute Sends Afghanistan Back to the Brink

Friday, 13 December, 2019 - 09:30
Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan’s chief executive and a presidential candidate. Credit: Jim Huylebroek for The New York Times

Three months after Afghanistan’s presidential vote, the entire electoral process is stalled in a dispute that Afghan and Western officials say could pose an even greater threat to stability than the last such crisis, five years ago.

Supporters of opposition candidates have besieged half a dozen election offices around the country for weeks, vowing to fight rather than accept another United States-brokered compromise like the one that resolved the 2014 dispute. Security officials worry that one wrong move could tip the protests into bloodshed. And election officials say a biometric verification process that was supposed to prevent voter fraud may have been compromised by human error.

In the middle of it all — again — is Abdullah Abdullah, making his third attempt to become president, and for the third time falling into a bitter standoff with election officials.

This one is likely to play out differently. With American diplomacy focused on negotiating an end to the long war with the Taliban, Western officials say the United States has made it clear that it will not be stepping in as it did five years ago. Then, Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a power-sharing deal between Abdullah, now Afghanistan’s chief executive, and Ashraf Ghani, now the president, that Kerry said averted a civil war.

Since Abdullah and his supporters forced the American intervention in 2014, he has tried to project an image of unity, playing his part in a “power sharing” government in which Ghani, in reality, has kept a lock on the power.

But Abdullah’s supporters are warier of him this time, though they say they are firm in rejecting what they see as fraud perpetrated to keep Ghani in office.

Even as Abdullah insists he will not give in, the strongmen who have rallied around him are worried, according to interviews with advisers and political brokers. In private, they have repeatedly raised their concern about Abdullah, often to his face: Will the man who has challenged two previous votes before compromising stick to the fight this time, or will he again strike a deal for his own political survival?

“One’s own survival as a politician, if that is the aim of somebody — he is misleading and he is misled,” Abdullah said during an interview with The New York Times, acknowledging his allies’ concerns and saying he was determined to fight.

“Ghani is a challenge for the country, not for me,” he said. “The point is how to replace him through circumstances in which the country is not lost.”

The truth is that the hodgepodge coalition of political leaders around the chief executive has little choice: They came at the last minute to Abdullah, who says he had been thinking of sitting out this race, because they couldn’t agree on another candidate.

For many of these former warlords and commanders, this is an ultimate fight of sorts. Ghani marginalized them, some to the point of repeated humiliation, and has promised to do so even more if he wins a second term.

Among those fighting for relevance is Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum, the erratic Uzbek commander whom Mr. Ghani made his vice president in 2014 to gain the support of his constituency, then stripped of much of his authority.

Dostum has been camped out in his northern stronghold in support of Abdullah, warning of a blood bath if soldiers use force against protesters. At closed-door meetings of Abdullah’s political circle, another bullish northern commander repeatedly offered to take over a couple of provinces, kicking out the governors and police chiefs to send a message.

Abdullah frequently meets with Western ambassadors and generals to try to leverage the street demonstrations, officials say. Where the United States and NATO stand on the election is still seen as crucial, given Afghanistan’s dependence on their aid and support.

After Ghani appeared with President Trump during his Thanksgiving Day visit to American troops in Afghanistan, Abdullah’s advisers were angry and confused, demanding to know why their candidate was being undermined by the Americans in the middle of an election dispute. Officials said that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo later called Abdullah in what appeared to be an attempt to placate him.

At the heart of the dispute is 300,000 questionable votes that Abdullah’s supporters say the election authorities have counted without transparency, which could favor Ghani. The ballot verification system has indicated that about 100,000 of those votes were cast outside voting hours — in some cases, by months.

The election commission attributes that to human error in setting the time on devices that collect voters’ biometric data and register the time of their votes. Abdullah’s team accuses election officials of trying to belatedly alter the rules in Ghani’s favor.

The New York Times

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