Afghanistan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah on Wednesday called for the counting of ballots in the runoff election to be halted due to what he termed “organized fraud.”
Abdullah, a former Afghan foreign minister, accused election officials of attempting to rig Saturday’s runoff vote in favor of his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. Abdullah implicated the office of President Hamid Karzai, although he stopped short of accusing Karzai of participating in fraud.
“There is no doubt that the leadership of the Afghan government was not neutral. All the respected candidates from the beginning of this process know that, unfortunately, the president of Afghanistan was not neutral,” Abdullah said.
Abdullah said he was suspending his campaign’s relations with the Independent Election Commission, the government body in charge of overseeing the vote, for its failure to investigate a series of concerns raised by his campaign.
Abdullah, who lost to Karzai in a 2009 election marred by massive irregularities, accused a senior election official of diverting ballot boxes and charged that initial vote tallies in some areas that favored Ghani were higher than the numbers of eligible voters.
“The rights of all the people of Afghanistan were wasted,” Abdullah said at a news conference. “What happened, in fact, eliminated our trust in the election commission. It eliminated the people of Afghanistan’s trust.”
Election officials rejected Abdullah’s allegations and said vote counting would continue under monitoring by Afghan and international observers. Preliminary results are expected July 2.
“The process will not be stopped,” said Noor Mohammed Noor, a spokesman for the election commission.
The claims immediately cast a cloud over an election that U.S. officials hoped would demonstrate that Afghanistan was ready to govern itself as most American troops withdraw from the country.
After a generally successful first round of voting April 5, the Obama administration had also hoped for an orderly political transition to speed up the signing of a security agreement governing the presence of more than 9,000 troops that will remain in Afghanistan to conduct training and counter-terrorism operations after the end of the year.
Abdullah’s announcement caught Western diplomats in Kabul by surprise. United Nations officials issued a statement calling the decision “regrettable” and urging both campaigns to continue to cooperate with the election bodies.
“The U.N. mission urges the candidates and their supporters to act in the national interest and reminds them of their personal and political responsibility for peace, stability and the unity of the country,” the statement said.
In a series of tweets, Ghani’s campaign said it was too early to stop the vote counting and said it would wait until election officials announce a final result before judging the fairness of the process.
“We are absolutely against any attempt to cease the election process,” Ghani tweeted. “We must respect people’s sacrifices for coming out to cast their votes.”
Among Abdullah’s allegations is that the official estimate of 7 million votes cast Saturday was inflated, a contention that appeared to be bolstered by anecdotal accounts of shorter lines and fewer women turning out to vote than in the first round election in April, when turnout was also about 7 million. He has called for an investigation of a senior election official, Ziaulhaq Amarkhail, whom he accused of illegally attempting to divert two truckloads of ballot boxes.
Abdullah’s campaign has also charged that turnout in pro-Ghani areas – particularly in southern Afghanistan, the heartland of the Pashtun ethnic group of both Ghani and Karzai – was reported to have increased by four times compared to April, according to initial tallies.
Abdullah won 45% of the vote in the first round compared to 31.6% for Ghani, and racked up a series of key endorsements in the weeks before the runoff, but many observers believed that Pashtun votes would coalesce around Ghani.
Times special correspondent Baktash reported from Kabul and Times staff writer Bengali from Mumbai, India.