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Reading Afghan Challenger’s Motives Amid Political Acrimony

Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah talks with journalists during a press conference in Kabul, on September 30.
Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah talks with journalists during a press conference in Kabul, on September 30.

One of the frontrunners for Afghanistan’s presidency is carefully playing his cards as he presses for victory in another election apparently snowballing into a dispute between the leading candidates.

In an apparent push to win the election marked by a low turnout and Taliban violence, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah seems to be pushing to claim the presidency or nudge his rival, President Ashraf Ghani, toward another power-sharing arrangement – something Ghani has ruled out before the election. The two partnered in a largely dysfunctional national unity government after a disputed election in 2014.

Compared with past elections tainted by massive rigging, the September 28 vote is thus far regarded as relatively transparent. But still Abdullah appears to be using vote transparency as his main tactic in gaining or retaining political power.

“We will use all legal and peaceful means to stand against fraud and corruption,” Abdullah wrote on Twitter on October 1, a day after claiming that his campaign’s “votes are the highest in the election, and the election will not go to the second round.”

Abdullah’s victory claims surfaced a day after Ghani’s running mate and former spy chief Amrullah Salih said their information indicated “that 60 to 70 percent of people voted [for] us."

Michael Semple, a former European Union and United Nations adviser in Afghanistan, says Abdullah is confident that he has secured the majority of “real votes.” The Afghan election authorities introduced several steps including biometric verification to prevent fraud.

“He is well aware of the reports of fraudulent voting in some parts of the country. As far as Dr. Abdullah is concerned, he is defending his votes,” Semple told RFE/RL’s Gandhara website. “However, the reality is that the counting and checking process has only just begun and we are still a long way from an official result.”

The independent election is set to announce the preliminary result around October 17 while the final result is expected to be announced on November 7. But Abdullah’s camp is demanding the commission only count the votes confirmed through biometric verification.

“We are waiting for the election commission [and the electoral complains commission] to throw out the votes not substantiated by the biometric verification system,” said Bashir Ahmad Tayanj, a spokesman for Abdullah’s campaign. “This time around, the election results should push Afghanistan toward stability and not a crisis.”

Haroon Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst, says Abdullah has made a political mistake by questioning the election process.

"As a leader of the national unity government, Abdullah Abdullah always sought to strengthen institutions, including electoral institutions,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan on September 30. “But his recent positioning was undoubtedly a blow to the institutionalization of democracy in Afghanistan.”

In a sign that the political controversies are likely to intensify before the official results are tallied, Fazilhadi Muslimyar, chairman of the Meshrano Jirga or upper house of the Afghan Parliament, called on the election commission to also count votes not verified through biometrics.

“I have heard that the head of the election commission has said that the commission will not count votes verified through biometrics. Even her father will count those votes,” he said in a video clip widely circulated on the Internet.

While Muslimyar backed Ghani in the election, the president’s campaign said he was not speaking for them. “Our campaign completely respects the independence of the election commission,” Ghani’s campaign spokesman Samim Arif told Gandhara on October 1. “And the commission is independent in making decisions.”

The credibility of the election results will be crucial for Ghani’s future because he has categorically ruled out another power-sharing government.

“Afghanistan must have one president, not two. I will not accept the national unity government,” Ghani told Radio Free Afghanistan in an exclusive interview in Kabul on September 25.

In 2014, they joined a national unity government brokered by then U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry after Abdullah accused Ghani of massive rigging after they squared off in a second round of the presidential election.

“In 2014, I made sure that all votes are counted -- 100 percent – and the fraud was not proved, but I made the national unity government because of national concerns and not because of fraud claims,” Ghani said.

In 2014, Abdullah led a formidable coalition of political factions. Most crucially, he had the wholehearted support of Jamiat-e Islami, a predominantly Tajik Islamist party that fought the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and led the anti-Taliban resistance in 1990s.

Today his support among former Jamiat stalwarts is fractured. Saleh, a key confidant of the late Jamiat leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, is Ghani’s running mate. Atta Mohammad Noor, another Jamiat leader and a powerful former governor, is now a leading Abdullah critic from his key backer in 2014.

“Please get ready for the fourth time in the next five years and test your luck,” Noor wrote on Facebook without mentioning Abdullah by name. “To take the [chief] executive [office], the nation will no longer have the patience to come to the streets.”

Political maneuvering aside, a lot still hinges on the formal election process. Semple suggested that in order to avoid a repetition of 2014 controversies, the election commission must deliver a credible result based on a majority of the real votes cast.

“Any mismanagement, failings in transparency, or accommodation of fraud will risk provoking aggrieved parties to take matters into their own hands,” he predicted.

In Kabul, Zarmina Kakar, a spokeswoman for the Election Complaints Commission, says they are aiming for precisely such an outcome.

"Candidates should not prejudge. The elections were acceptable to the people. We will avoid the repeat of 2014 distrust,” she said.