Afghan presidential rivals make breakthrough in poll dispute

AFP , Saturday 12 Jul 2014

Afghan presidential candidates Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (L) and Abdullah Abdullah (R) hug each other during a news conference in Kabul July 12, 2014. (Photo: Reuters)

Afghanistan's two presidential rivals agreed Saturday to an audit of every vote cast in last month's disputed election, a major breakthrough in a bitter standoff that raised fears of violence and ethnic unrest.

The surprise deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, reached after two days of frantic negotiations brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry, will see the eventual victor lead a "government of national unity".

Ghani, Abdullah and Kerry joined hands at the end of a news conference in Kabul and raised them in triumph after securing the breakthrough.

The deadlock over the run-off vote to choose a successor to outgoing President Hamid Karzai plunged Afghanistan into political crisis and dented US hopes of a smooth transfer of power as Washington seeks to withdraw all its troops by late 2016.

Preliminary results of the second-round vote released on Monday put Ghani in the lead, but Abdullah -- who has already once lost a presidential bid in controversial circumstances -- declared himself the true winner, saying massive fraud robbed him of victory.

The victory claim inflamed tensions and prompted Washington to warn that violence or taking "extra-constitutional means" would result in a halt to US assistance to the war-torn country.

But almost 48 hours after he flew into the Afghan capital on a hastily-arranged mediation mission, Kerry announced the breakthrough.

"Both candidates have committed to participate in and stand by the results of the largest possible audit. Every single ballot that was cast will be audited, all eight million," Kerry told the news conference, which had been delayed by six hours amid last-minute shuttle diplomacy.

"The winner will serve as president and will immediately form a government of national unity."

The deal went further than a UN proposal made late on Thursday to audit just over 8,000 polling stations where suspicions of ballot-stuffing had been raised -- around 44 percent of the total votes cast.

"We will abide by the will of the people. We will not defend any single fraudulent vote," Ghani said.

Abdullah, wearing a suit in contrast to Ghani's traditional Afghan dress, said the two sides had reached a "technical and political agreement".

"I hope this is for the benefit of Afghan people," he said.

Kerry said the full audit would be carried out in Kabul and begin within 24 hours, with NATO and Afghan forces transporting ballot boxes to the capital.

The chief US diplomat said the audit would be "conducted in accordance with the highest international standards" and would take "a number of weeks".

Karzai has agreed to delay his successor's inauguration, originally scheduled for August 2, to allow time for the audit, Kerry added.



The head of the UN mission, Jan Kubis, appealed for observers to oversee the audit.

"To make it a success, I would like to appeal to international observer organisations... (to) send as quickly as possible teams to support this process," Kubis said.

On Friday Kerry stressed that results released on Monday showing Ghani in the lead -- with some 56 percent of the vote, ahead of Abdullah on 44 percent -- were only "preliminary".

"They are neither authoritative nor final, and no one should be stating a victory at this point in time," Kerry said.

Abdullah, a former anti-Taliban resistance fighter, draws his support among Tajiks and other northern Afghan groups, while Ghani is backed by Pashtun tribes of the south and east -- a disturbing echo of the ethnic divisions of the civil war in the 1990s.

Thirteen years after the 2001 US invasion ousted the hardline Taliban Islamic regime, all sides are keen to maintain the gains made in such areas as literacy rates and women's rights.

But Afghan forces know they will increasingly have to stand up to a resilient and bloody Taliban insurgency on their own as international forces withdraw.

Washington also wants a signed deal on protecting US forces left in the country until late 2016.

Underlining the parlous security situation, as the leaders met in Kabul a roadside bomb in the restive southern province of Kandahar, the Taliban heartland, killed eight civilian

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