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Afghan Election Audit Marred By Disagreements, Delays

The auditors review ballots from the presidential election runoff at the Independent Election Commission office in Kabul on July 18.

Walkouts, verbal disputes, and persistent delays -- these are the complications dogging the audit of every vote cast in Afghanistan's contentious presidential runoff.

For just more than a week, hundreds of national and international auditors have crammed into the Independent Election Commission (IEC) headquarters in Kabul to separate fraudulent ballots from clean votes. But with just a fraction of the 8.1 million ballots inspected, the process has attracted widespread criticism and is lagging behind schedule.

Only about 4 percent of the ballot boxes had been audited as of July 23, despite plans to have 100 teams working in two shifts inspecting around 1,000 ballot boxes a day.

This has raised concerns that the original three-week estimate for completing the process is insufficient, and that the recount could take until late August to complete. That would further push back the already delayed inauguration of the new president, which in kind leaves Afghans in limbo about their future and pushes back decisions on the presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014.

Rival presidential candidates Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani agreed to the audit following a last-minute deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Kabul earlier this month. Abdullah had claimed massive fraud and disputed preliminary results that gave Ghani a 1 million-vote lead, plunging Afghanistan into a deepening crisis and raising fears of violence.

Independent Afghan election observers say the audit has been painstakingly slow. There has been a shortage of auditors and disagreement between Abdullah and Ghani over how to disqualify fraudulent ballots. Moreover, only about 80 percent of the ballot boxes from around the country had been transported to Kabul as of July 24.

Disagreement Over Invalidation

On July 23, the audit was halted for a second time in a week so that the campaign teams, the IEC, and the United Nations could agree on the rules under which the audit is conducted -- particularly those outlining what to do when irregularities are detected.

The UN said in a statement on July 24 that it had been unable to get both sides to agree on a common text for scrutinizing votes, which would allow for a recount once fraudulent votes are thrown out. For now, auditors have only been physically inspecting each ballot box using a 16-point checklist.

Independent Election Commission workers, overseen by Italian troops, unload ballot boxes flown in on a UN aircraft from Farah Province to be sent onward to Kabul, at Herat airport on July 24.
Independent Election Commission workers, overseen by Italian troops, unload ballot boxes flown in on a UN aircraft from Farah Province to be sent onward to Kabul, at Herat airport on July 24.

Naim Ayubzada, the head of Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), an independent Afghan election observer group that has 112 people overseeing the audit in Kabul, says there are still "deep differences" over the invalidation criteria. Despite the ongoing disputes, the audit resumed on July 24.

"There's no procedure for the audit process," Ayubzada says. "It's still not final, so they have to make it final and give everyone a copy of the rules, especially to observers and monitors."

Ayubzada says the lack of clarity has led to numerous disputes and walkouts by the rival campaign teams. "Candidates' representatives have engaged in verbal conflicts and disputes that have challenged and stopped the process," he says. "The candidates are also somehow taking the leadership role in the process and its implementation."

Ayubzada adds that the IEC, which he says is only playing a facilitating role, needs to take the lead in the process.

There is a dispute between the Abdullah and Ghani camps over how big a role the IEC should play in adjudicating fraud complaints. Ghani wants a prominent role for Afghanistan's electoral bodies while Abdullah wants a larger role for the international community.

Abdullah has repeatedly accused the IEC of bias. The IEC's chief secretary, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, resigned last month after the release of an audio recording that implicated him in alleged ballot-box stuffing.

Shortage Of Observers

The auditing at IEC headquarters is being watched by hundreds of national and international auditors, including the candidates' own representatives, local election monitors, UN and EU observers, and the media.

But the audit has been hampered by the lack of trained local auditors.

The IEC said it would have 100 teams working in two shifts auditing around 1,000 ballot boxes a day. But when the audit began on July 17 only 30 teams were available, although that number had reached 80 late this week, according to the IEC.

Fahim Naimi, the spokesman for Free and Fair Election Forum of Afghanistan (FEFA), an independent Afghan election-observer group that has 110 people monitoring the audit, says the sheer scale of the effort caught the Afghan electoral bodies off-guard.

"The number of auditors was very low at the onset but they have been growing," says Naimi, who adds that auditors are being recruited and others trained. "We need to increase the number of auditors as soon as possible so that the review runs quicker and the process will be completed."

The EU, which has taken a prominent role in the audit, is also training and accrediting its own observers and auditors.

Naimi says at the current pace, the audit will not be completed for "another three or four weeks." TEFA head Ayubzada, however, says it could take "months."

Logistical Challenges

The process is not helped by the fact that many of the ballot boxes have yet to arrive at IEC headquarters in Kabul. According to the IEC late this week, only around 19,000 of a total of 23,000 ballot boxes had arrived.

The ballot boxes are being transported by NATO-led forces. The transport of ballots is providing a logistical challenge, with thousands of ballot boxes waiting at airfields for pick-up.

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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.