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Lingering crisis

Interview: Gabriel DomínguezJune 24, 2014

After a top Afghan official quit over fraud claims, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah has said he is open to talks. But expert Thomas Ruttig tells DW the crisis may linger as trust in the process has been eroded.

Afghan demonstrators shout slogans in support of presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah in Herat on June 24, 2014.
Image: Aref Karimi/AFP/Getty Images

In a bid to resolve an electoral standoff over allegations of massive fraud in the June 14 runoff presidential vote, Afghanistan's chief electoral officer Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail has resigned. One of the two presidential candidates, Abdullah Abdullah had previously suspended ties with the country's Independent Electoral Commission, arguing his campaign monitors had recorded ballot box stuffing and other irregularities.

The former foreign minister's campaign team had also released audio recordings they claimed contained evidence that Amarkhail had helped engineer the alleged vote-rigging. Although the top election official denied all charges, he stepped down on Monday, June 23. Abdullah reacted to the news by saying: "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."

However, Thomas Ruttig, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network Afghanistan, says in a DW interview that current the election crisis is not limited to some of the people involved, but it also has to do with the role played by the two electoral commissions which are not regarded as independent institutions by all of the parties.

Does Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail's resignation pave the way to resolving the political standoff?

No, it doesn't resolve the standoff. The Afghan election crisis is not only about the people involved, it is also about the electoral system. The two electoral commissions - the IEC and the IECC – are not seen by all sides as sufficiently independent as their members have been appointed by President Hamid Karzai, who is still in power and is now being accused by Abdullah of a lack of impartiality.

Thomas Ruttig is co-director and co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network.
Ruttig: "The Afghan election crisis is not only about the people involved, it is about the electoral system"Image: picture-alliance/dpa

There is no sufficiently independent institution of last resort, like a constitutional court, so the crisis can linger on and both candidates may decide to pull out more details about irregularities, if needed.

Amarkhail denied all the charges against him, but said he was stepping down to save the election process. How watertight is the case against Amarkhail?

The tapes, indicating Amarkhail's alleged involvement in ordering electoral fraud in several provinces in favor of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, still need to be scrutinized by independent experts.

My organization also listened to the recordings and they are of poor quality; often inaudible. But we are not specialists on voice analysis. One more problem is that Abdullah's supporters have so far failed to reveal the source.

It can be assumed - as a potential scenario - that political friends from within the Afghan intelligence service provided the tapes. The country's domestic intelligence agency NDS is known for listening to phone conversations, perhaps even systematically.

Now that Amarkhail has resigned, what could be the path forward for Abdullah, Ghani and the IEC?

The IEC insists that vote counting should continue, but there already seem to be delays. The plan to announce the preliminary final result on July 2 seems to be jeopardized.

Both candidates will have the chance to present more evidence for fraud. There have also been reports about similar incidents taking place in Abdullah's strongholds in the north. But the basic problem remains: No one, not even the independent Afghan election observers, have a full picture of what happened on both election days, April 5 and June 14, of how many votes were legitimate and how many the result of fraud.

This is also due to the fragile security situation, not only on account of Taliban threats, but also because of possible electoral manipulation by local strong men.

As a result of complaints by both candidates, electoral officials are reviewing 10 percent of the ballots cast in five provinces - Khost, Paktia, Paktika, Ghor and Nuristan - where numerous irregularities have been reported. What is set to happen if major fraud is confirmed?

The confirmation of widespread irregularities will undermine the legitimacy of the election and cast doubts over the whole political transition. It will also reflect the incompleteness of the "international mission" in Afghanistan claiming that success has been achieved.

Afghan election workers prepare to start counting ballot papers after voting closed at a polling station in Mazar-I-Shariff June 14, 2014.
If the government and its international allies had done their homework properly, elections could have been held in a much better way, says RuttigImage: Reuters

However, if the government and its international allies had done their homework properly, - which includes closing the gaps in the Afghan electoral laws and institutions - elections could have been held in a much better way even in Afghanistan.

The same shortcomings in the Afghan electoral system which are now leading a crisis have already been known since the first presidential vote in 2004. But the international community was just interested in holding elections, and not so much in their quality. Karzai, on the other hand, was only interested in having a free hand – which he used, particularly, in the absolutely fraudulent election of 2009.

Thomas Ruttig is co-director and co-founder of the Afghanistan Analysts Network. He has a degree in Asian Studies (Afghanistics) from Humboldt University, Berlin (Germany) and has spent well over a decade working in Afghanistan and Pakistan.