The recent resignation of a top Afghan election official accused of fraud may pave the way for a breakthrough in a political deadlock that threatens to derail Afghanistan's presidential election at a critical time.
Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail (shown in main picture, right), the head of the secretariat of the Independent Election Commission (IEC), resigned on Monday, June 23, amid allegations that he organized a fraudulent run-off vote on June 14.
Addressing a press conference in Kabul, Amarkhail denied any wrongdoing and said he had resigned for the greater national good and for the democratic electoral process to proceed in the war-torn South Asian country.
It is believed that it was President Hamid Karzai who suggested that Amarkhail should step down following widespread protests by supporters of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and a deadlock in the electoral process.
The United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reacted to the announcement by saying it recognized Amarkhail's resignation as a step that helped protect Afghanistan's political transition and contribute to an orderly and timely electoral process. The Mission also called on the presidential candidates to "fully re-enter the electoral process, cooperate with the electoral institutions and respect their decisions."
Hamid Karzai, the incumbent Afghan president, will be replaced by a new head of state in early August. His successor could be either his former finance minister, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, or his former foreign minister, Abdullah Abdullah. Whereas Abdullah received 44.5 percent of total votes in the first round of the election on April 5, Ghani secured 31.5 percent. In order to become president, a candidate needs more than half of the total votes. In line with the Afghan constitution, a runoff election has to take place between the two leading candidates.
Allegations of fraud
Amarkhail stands accused of supporting Abdullah's rival Ghani in the second and final round of voting. According to media reports, Kabul security chief, General Muhammad Zahir Zahir, criticized the election official for what he described as electoral fraud after police seized a vehicle laden with sensitive election materials from the 9th district of Kabul city during the runoff.
A few days after the tallying process started, Abdullah - who was the frontrunner in the first round of the poll - suspended cooperation with the IEC, claiming that his campaign monitors had recorded ballot box stuffing and other irregularities. On Sunday, June 22, Abdullah also released a secretly an audio recording in which Amarkhail allegedly tells an IEC member from the northwestern province of Faryab to fire his entire staff and change them for Pashtuns and Uzbeks.
While Abdullah's support is based among the Tajik minority and other northern tribes, Ghani is a Pashtun - Afghanistan's largest ethnic group, which is strongest in the south and east.
In Monday's press conference, the election official denied the claims, saying the audio recordings were fake and only aimed at creating confusion. "I denounce all the allegations and having full confidence in the justice and democracy, I demand that the election process and opinions of the masses must be respected," he said.
"Now the door is open for us to talk to the election commission and talk about the conditions and circumstances that will help the process,"Abdullah told reporters on Monday, June 23, welcoming Amarkhail's decision to resign.