KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s two rival candidates reached a breakthrough agreement Saturday to a complete audit of their contested presidential election and, whoever the victor, a national unity government.
The deal, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, offers a path out of what threatened to be a debilitating political crisis for Afghanistan, with both candidates claiming victory and talking of setting up competing governments.
Such a scenario could have split the fragile country’s government and security forces at a time the U.S. is pulling out most of its troops and the Taliban continue to wage a fierce insurgency.
An audit of all 8 million votes cast in the recent presidential runoff will be done because of accusations of widespread voter fraud. The audit, which will begin immediately, will be supervised by international monitors and its results will be binding, according to the agreement announced by Kerry and endorsed by the rival candidates, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. They vowed to form a national unity government once the results are announced, presumably one that includes members of each side.
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“Every single ballot that was cast will be audited,” Kerry said at a news conference in Kabul, the capital.
The breakthrough came on the second day of a visit that Kerry hastily arranged to try to prevent Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power from collapsing. Both Abdullah and Ghani had said the election was marred by fraud and both had claimed victory.
Kerry made the announcement flanked by Abdullah and Ghani after intense negotiations involving shuttling between the two sides and meetings with President Hamid Karzai.
The audit will take several weeks, and Kerry said he and the candidates would ask Karzai to postpone the inauguration, now scheduled for Aug. 2. Ballot boxes will be flown into the capital by the NATO-led military coalition in Afghanistan, and United Nations and other international observers will watch the process.
“This is unquestionably a tense and difficult moment,” Kerry said, “but I am very pleased that the two candidates who stand here with me today and President Karzai have stepped up and shown a significant commitment to compromise.”
Jan Kubis, the U.N. special representative in Afghanistan, called on other nations to send extra observers to assist with the audit.
Abdullah said the election created “serious challenges,” but he praised Ghani for working toward the accord on the audit and the unity government.
Ghani returned the compliments, lauding his competitor’s patriotism and commitment to a dialogue that promotes national unity. “Stability is the desire of everyone,” Ghani said. “Our aim is simple: We’ve committed to the most thorough audit” in history.
Abdullah and Ghani spoke first in English, then in Dari. Ghani also spoke in Pashto. When they were done, they shook hands and hugged. Kerry later joined them as they raised their arms in triumph hand-in-hand.
The two candidates spent the day inside the U.S. Embassy building, holding separate meetings with Kerry, according to campaign officials. Kerry then traveled to the presidential palace to talk to Karzai. Talks had continued into the early evening without food or drink because of Ramadan, during which Muslims fast during the day.
Discussions concerned how to determine how many ballots should be re-examined for fraud and how to ensure that the audit was impartial. Both sides had wrangled over the technical details, in particular the threshold for selecting which ballots should be reviewed.
Kerry had to seek not only agreement by the two candidates but also acceptance by Karzai, who will step down after 13 years in power and has by all accounts remained a powerful presence behind the scenes.
In the first round of voting April 5, Abdullah emerged the winner against 11 other candidates, with 45 percent of the vote to Ghani’s 31 percent. Because neither won more than 50 percent of the vote, a required runoff between the two was held June 14. Preliminary results from the runoff show Ghani leaping ahead with 56 percent of the vote and Abdullah with 44 percent. The turnout also increased by more than 1 million voters in the runoff, to 8 million.
Abdullah’s campaign has accused his opponent of conducting extensive institutional fraud and alleged that members of the Independent Election Commission, government officials and Ghani supporters orchestrated large-scale ballot stuffing to enable Ghani to win the presidency.
Ghani’s team has said that fraud took place on both sides and insists that his better showing in the runoff was the result of an energetic campaign to mobilize fellow ethnic Pashtuns to vote for him.
The dispute comes amid a rise in violence around the country.
Seven members of the Afghan security forces were killed in clashes with the Taliban east of the capital in Laghman province Saturday. Two tribal elders were killed in separate attacks in southern Afghanistan, electricity has been knocked out in the city of Kandahar and a bomb killed two people in Jalalabad.
Kerry’s mission this year was much like one he undertook five years ago for the 2009 presidential election, trying to rescue a vote marred by fraud and resolve differences between two candidates who were both claiming victory. At that time, Karzai was campaigning against Abdullah for a second term.
Kerry’s task might have been even harder this time, since history has hardened the opposing sides. Abdullah believes he was robbed of victory in 2009, and Karzai has since overseen changes meant to reduce the international involvement in the election process.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.