KABUL, Afghanistan – Presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah suspended relations with Afghanistan's election commission and called on it to halt vote counting Wednesday in an escalation of fraud allegations threatening to disrupt what was supposed to be the country's first peaceful transfer of authority.
Abdullah, a one-time aide to a famed warlord during the Afghan anti-Soviet guerrilla campaign, has questioned what his team has determined is a 1 million vote lead by Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai in the early tallies from the June 14 runoff vote. Abdullah pointed out it is a dramatic increase from the first round that put him in the lead with 45 percent of the vote compared to 31.6 percent for his rival.
He alleged massive ballot box stuffing and other irregularities and directly accused the Independent Election Commission of interfering with the vote.
"We announce that we have no confidence or trust in the election bodies," Abdullah said at a news conference. "The counting process should stop immediately and if that continues, it will have no legitimacy."
A spokesman for the electoral commission, Noor Mohammad Noor, said the vote count was continuing with national and international observers monitoring the process.
He said the commission had sent written responses to complaints from Abdullah's campaign.
"If they still have more questions they can ask us more and we will officially respond to them," he said in a telephone interview.
The first round of voting on April 5 went relatively smoothly as six other candidates were eliminated and Abdullah and Ahmadzai emerged as the top vote getters. But the campaign tone for the second round has been sharply more accusatory with the field narrowed to two hopefuls.
The winner will replace Hamid Karzai, who has been the only leader the country has known since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion that ousted the Taliban. Karzai was constitutionally barred from seeking a third term. An initial turnout estimate suggested 7 million voters cast ballots, which would be 60 percent of the 12 million eligible voters and equivalent to the first round.
Abdullah said the turnout figure was inflated.
The Obama administration is watching carefully. Abdullah and Ahmadzai have both promised to sign a security pact with the U.S. that will allow up to 14,000 American and NATO troops to remain in the country next year to advise the Afghan security forces and conduct counterterrorism missions. But they need to be inaugurated first.
Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, said Tuesday that the U.S. fully expects the deal to be signed and said he did not believe that the rapid deterioration of security in Iraq would occur in Afghanistan once U.S. combat troops leave. The U.S. left Iraq after the government in Baghdad refused to agree on a security arrangement.
He expressed confidence in the Afghan security forces, saying they performed extraordinarily well in providing security for the election, and now must maintain that momentum as the ballots and election materials are collected.
"Now we're into the difficult time of counting up the ballots and going through the complaint process," said Dunford. "The next several weeks will be important."
The first initial results are not due until July 2, then final results on July 22, according to the official timetable. But Abdullah Abdullah's team has questioned what it has determined is a 1 million vote lead by Ahmadzai in the early tallies. Abdullah pointed out it is a dramatic increase from the first round that put him in the lead with 45 percent of the vote compared to 31.6 percent for his rival.