Afghanistan chief executive Abdullah Abdullah claimed victory Monday over incumbent Ashraf Ghani in the weekend’s presidential election, far ahead of the release of any official results.
The move is likely to stir political tensions across Afghanistan and brings to mind the election Abdullah and his top rival Ghani bitterly contested in 2014 that sparked a constitutional crisis and prompted US intervention.
“We have the most votes in this election,” Abdullah said at a news conference, without providing evidence. “The results will be announced by the IEC (Independent Election Commission), but we have the most votes. The election is not going to go to a second round.”
Abdullah’s announcement came after one of Ghani’s running mates, Amrullah Saleh, on Sunday claimed to have garnered the lion’s share of votes, but late Monday he backpedaled and said he had only been referring to a particular, partial result.
“We never allow ourselves to judge the election. It is only the IEC that has the right to decide the winner or the loser,” he told journalists.
Abdullah’s claim comes even before the IEC has finished tallying turnout from Saturday’s election, with hundreds of polling centers still unreported.
Preliminary results are not due until October 19, and if the leading candidate doesn’t secure more than 50% of the vote the top two will run off in a second round.
Almost immediately, senior IEC official Habib Rahman Nang slammed Abdullah’s announcement as premature.
“No candidate has the right to declare himself the winner,” Nang said. “According to the law, it is the IEC that decides who is the winner.”
A tired-looking Abdullah, who is seeking the presidency for the third time after losing in 2009 and 2014, said his team would “make the new government.”
Without giving details, Abdullah also mentioned reports of “some government officials” meddling in the election process. His remarks follow the release on social media of several videos purporting to show election workers stuffing ballots in favor of Ghani.
Shortly after Abdullah’s comments, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini called on candidates to respect the electoral timeline.
“We expect that the candidates exercise restraint, await the official announcement of preliminary and final results by the (IEC) and submit any evidence-based complaints through the established institutional complaints mechanism,” she said in a statement.
The IEC’s complaints division head, Zuhra Bayan Shinwari, said the panel had so far received 2,569 complaints.
Previous Afghan polls have been marred by widespread allegations of systemic fraud, so the stakes are high for the IEC, which has promised a clean process this year with rigorous steps to curtail cheating.
Commentators suggested the videos of apparent ballot stuffing could either have been made by rivals trying to discredit Ghani, or else produced as proof that the rigging had actually been carried out.
But even if true, the IEC insists it has ample safeguards against such blatant fraud through new technology and voter verification techniques, particularly biometric devices designed to ensure each person only voted once.
“The management of election day was better than previous elections and security was better,” said Ahmad Zubair Habibzada, a spokesman for the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an election watchdog that dispatched about 5,200 observers across the country.
Despite a large pool of candidates, the election was seen as a two-horse race between Abdullah and Ghani.
They both claimed victory in the 2014 poll – a vote so tainted by fraud and violence that it forced the administration of then-US president Barack Obama to push for a compromise that saw Abdullah awarded the subordinate role.
Saturday’s election was also marred by hundreds of small-scale Taliban attacks at polling stations, but the insurgents were unable to steal the headlines with any significant bloody assault.