Afghan women voters cover their faces while queuing to cast a ballot at a polling station in Herat on Sept 28, 2019. The Taliban opposes the poll so women fear being identified. Photo: Hoshang Hashimi / AFP

Tensions surrounding the recent Afghan presidential elections are a despairing reminder that anti-government militancy is not the only – and perhaps not the biggest – problem the country will be facing in coming years. The two frontrunners, the incumbent Ashraf Ghani and his partner in power under the terms of the current National Unity Government, Abdullah Abdullah, have both declared victory in the elections held in September.

A voter recount and audit was announced on November 9 by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), focusing on polling stations where irregularities were reported. The recount was halted after only three days amid rising disagreements regarding which votes should be given the benefit of doubt and which ones should be excluded from the recount from the start.

Preliminary results were scheduled for October 19, which the IEC had to postpone by two weeks. With the derailment of the recount, the announcement seems unlikely now that the two-week delay is coming to an end.

Disagreements concern 300,000 votes, including 137,000 previously quarantined ballot papers that have been added to the list of clean votes by the IEC allegedly without the knowledge of the candidates’ monitors and observers. In addition, 100,000 votes were cast either before or after the scheduled voting hours.

Another major disagreement concerns the votes from 2,500 polling stations whose biometric data is missing. According to IEC regulations, biometric details of voters are taken at the point of polling, which is used to verify the result form before sending it to the IEC headquarters in Kabul. Any vote that has not followed this procedure is automatically invalid. Yet the IEC, in clear contradiction of its own rules, has announced that it will include these votes in the recount process.

Both decisions could decisively tip the balance in favor of any candidate in an election that saw fewer than 2 million voters participating.

Abdullah Abdullah has denounced the recount and audit under the above conditions as illegal and called them a move to legitimatize fraudulent votes. In contrast, Ashraf Ghani has declared his support for the process, a move that in effect makes him the only major candidate to do so.

All this is reminiscent of the contentious presidential election in April 2014, which required mediation by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the US secretary of state at the time, John Kerry, to get resolved.

The current disputes could come to a head if the IEC does not address concerns regarding its impartiality. This is particularly worrying because a member of the commission, Mawlana Mohammad Abdullah, gave a speech recently pointing to pressures to silence him. He appears to be the only commissioner who has openly advocated in media for a transparent separation of clean and non-standard votes based on the IEC regulations.

Voter participation has been witnessed as implausibly higher than the national average in Kandahar, Helmand, Khost, Kunar and Ningarhar provinces, according to the independent Kabul-based think-tank Afghanistan Analysts Network. All these provinces have Pashtun-majority populations. Given that Ashraf Ghani is the putative Pashtun candidate and Abdullah Abdullah the Tajik, the dispute could easily morph into a much wider standoff along ethnic lines.

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