Written by Mujib Mashal
Two weeks after Afghans braved deadly Taliban attacks in order to vote for a new president, both front-runners have essentially claimed victory, but the country’s Election Commission appeared unlikely to meet its own deadline for announcing preliminary results.
The critical question of whether Afghanistan will have an acceptable election or face yet another political crisis rests on a technically complicated process of tallying votes, playing out against an environment of mistrust that deepens as time passes.
Complicating matters are complex new anti-fraud measures — including the tedious collection of each voter’s biometric data at the time of polling. They were meant to end a history of ballot stuffing. But those new measures were abused during the voting, officials say.
A preliminary result was expected Oct. 19, but many election officials on Sunday said they feared it would be delayed by days.
Mawlana Mohamed Abdullah, one of the commissioners, said they were still completing the review of result sheets from across the country and uploading the biometric data, which had stopped for days because of technical troubles. Before an initial result can be announced, fraudulent votes must be removed and some ballots may be recounted at stations under scrutiny.
At least one of President Ashraf Ghani’s main challengers, Abdullah Abdullah, has raised questions about the transparency of the process to clean up votes. A stalemate between the two men during the messy 2014 elections nearly tore apart the country before the United States negotiated a power-sharing agreement.
Another political crisis in Afghanistan would further complicate U.S. efforts to seek an endgame to the country’s long war, with U.S. diplomats trying to keep alive peace talks with the Taliban that President Donald Trump called off last month.
Abdullah’s team is concerned that a large share of fraudulent votes are being entered into the database of consolidated votes. His team worries that if an initial result is inflated by fraudulent votes and shows their opponent ahead, they will lose control of the debate about who won, even if those bad votes are later discarded. And Ghani, as the incumbent, would then have a stronger position. Ghani’s camp, on the other hand, sees Abdullah as essentially priming a dispute if he loses.
“We have a strong commitment to transparency, to neutrality, and to professionalism, and for us only biometric votes are credible,” said Awrang Zeb, one of the election commissioners. “Our system and procedures are such that until the biometrically verified votes are not separated from the rest, until the clean votes are not determined, we will not be announcing any results.”
Zeb acknowledged delays, but said the commission was still trying to stay on schedule.
“If we miss the timeline, it will only be for making sure the results are transparent and accurate,” he said.
The United Nations, as well as almost all major embassies in Kabul, has urged the candidates to allow the Election Commission time to complete its work.
The election, held as the Taliban launched hundreds of attacks around the country, had a low turnout of about 2.7 million voters. But many observers were skeptical of even that figure and suggested it was probably much lower. Estimates by election officials and candidates, based on an initial assessment of result sheets, suggest at least 20% to 30% of the vote could be thrown out because of stuffed ballots.
In some districts, despite security forces bringing election materials and ballot boxes, voters could not leave their homes to cast their vote.
“About 20 army tanks, in a large convoy, brought the ballot boxes for voting,” said Sayed Mahmod, the district governor of Almar in northern Faryab province, where much of the area is under Taliban control. “After Election Day, the same convoy took the ballot boxes, safe and sound and empty, back to the provincial center.”
For the first time the Election Commission has set up an online platform where all candidates have access to the same result sheets sent from polling stations around the country.
While many of those result sheets are inflated with ballot stuffing, the candidates also have other data at their disposal to help them estimate their standing. Based on these estimates, both Ghani’s and Abdullah’s camps say they have won in the first round, indicating margins could be so small that the Election Commission’s accuracy takes center stage.
Ghani’s advisers say their margin is so comfortable that even if half a million votes are thrown out, they would will still win. Abdullah’s advisers, on the other hand, say if all fraudulent votes are removed, their candidate will win in the first round, and if some level of questionable votes get counted, the most likely scenario is a runoff.
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