KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Despite lingering disputes, Afghan electoral officials said Thursday that they will resume an audit of the presidential election this weekend after the presidential candidates sparred over how to disqualify ballots amid allegations of massive fraud.
The recount of more than 8 million votes is likely to take weeks, stalling an already much-delayed announcement of a new president to replace Hamid Karzai, the only leader the country has known since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban.
Preliminary results from the June 14 runoff vote showed former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai well ahead of his rival, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, but both sides alleged fraud. In a high-profile bid to pull the country back from the brink of crisis, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated a deal that included an audit of all votes under national and international supervision and ultimately a national unity government. But that process soon fell victim to procedural arguments between the two candidates' teams.
Electoral officials stopped the audit last weekend because of the differences as well as a major Muslim holiday. The head of the Afghan Independent Election Commission and the chief U.N. envoy to Afghanistan said the sides have agreed on new criteria, allowing the audit to go forward.
"On Saturday, we will restart the auditing and we kindly request the candidates, their team representatives and all other stakeholders involved in the auditing to fully cooperate with the Independent Election Commission in implementing this framework and finishing the process," Commission chairman Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani said at a joint news conference with U.N. envoy Jan Kubis.
Kubis signaled that patience was growing thin.
"Any delays, any uncertainties, have a major, negative impact on both the political and economic situation in Afghanistan," he said. "It's high time to complete the process of the elections."
A member of Ahmadzai's campaign, Kabir Ranjbar, welcomed the announcement.
"I hope it won't be delayed because the Afghan people are waiting for the result," he said. "And it's very important for the legitimacy of the next president to separate the clean votes and the fraudulent ones."
In a sign of more hurdles ahead, however, Abdullah's spokesman Fazel Sangcharaki said the campaign still had concerns about the auditing process.
"Our big concern is that the leadership of the auditing process is being done by the IEC while we want it to be under the observation of the international and U.N. observers," he said. "We cannot confidently attend the process on Saturday."
The prolonged uncertainty about the outcome of the election, which began with a first round on April 5, has threatened to derail with the U.S. and its allies had hoped would be the country's first democratic transfer of authority and a sign of progress as the international community winds down its combat mission by the end of this year.
Both Ahmadzai and Abdullah also have vowed to seal a bilateral security pact with the U.S. that Karzai has refused to sign. The United States says it needs the legal guarantees in order to leave behind some 10,000 troops in Afghanistan next year. If the pact isn't finalized, U.S. officials say they may have to pull out all American forces, an undesired scenario that played out three years ago in Iraq.
Abdullah, who won the first round with a significant lead was most vociferous in alleging massive fraud after the results from the runoff vote showed Ahmadzai had moved ahead.
Abdullah, a top leader of the Northern Alliance that battled the Taliban before the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, claimed massive ballot-stuffing. He was runner-up to Karzai in a fraud-riddled 2009 presidential vote before he pulled out of that runoff, and many of his supporters fear he could be cheated for a second time.
The U.N. envoy praised the commission for hammering out agreement on the criteria for the invalidation of fraudulent ballots "that complete the regulatory framework needed, not only for the audit, but for the adjudication of the results, and the recommendations of this audit."
"This opens the door to the next stage, and in a way almost the final stage, of the audit - it means the adjudication of the findings of the audit," he said.
Karzai, who was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term, has agreed to stay on until a decision has been made. The inauguration of a new leader had initially been set for Aug. 2.
The president called for the audit to be completed soon.
"The people want to get the results sooner so the country can have a new president and a new government to allow Afghanistan to move forward," he said in a statement issued by his office.