Afghan President Hamid Karzai says his successor will take office on September 2, despite a slow-moving audit to eliminate fraudulent ballots cast for the two contenders.
“The Afghan government is totally ready for the inauguration ceremony of the new president on the date of September 2,” the presidential palace said.
The date will not change, according to the statement, which was issued following talks between Karzai and the head of the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, Jan Kubis.
The new president was due to be inaugurated on August 2, in Afghanistan’s first democratic transfer of power, but the government has been paralysed for months after the first round of voting failed to produce a clear winner and the second round in June triggered allegations of fraud.
As fears grew of a return to civil war, the United States last month brokered an emergency deal designed to end the impasse between poll rivals Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist, and former anti-Taliban fighter Abdullah Abdullah.
But neither candidate appears willing to back down, and the dispute looks set to flare again in coming days when early results emerge from the anti-fraud audit of all 8 million votes.
The audit has checked more than 60 per cent of votes, and the next stage of invalidating fraudulent ballots is likely to raise tensions between the candidates, who are meant to be in talks about a post-election unity government.
The US had been pushing for the next president to be inaugurated before a NATO summit starting on September 4, which is intended to sign off on follow-up support.
The political crisis will worsen if either candidate pulls out of the audit or rejects its outcome, and any protests will pose a challenge to national security forces.
Many of Dr Ghani’s supporters are Pashtuns from the south and east, while Dr Abdullah’s loyalists are Tajiks and other northern groups.
Dr Ghani and Karzai have denied accusations of vote rigging from Dr Abdullah’s camp. But interviews with Afghan and international officials support some of the most serious of Dr Abdullah’s claims, offering details of a broad effort to push the runoff to Dr Ghani, including a pressure campaign by election and palace officials and ballot-box stuffing orchestrated by an ally of Karzai.
The warning signs have been there since the 2009 presidential election between Karzai and Dr Abdullah, when 1.3 million fraudulent ballots were thrown out. Deeply angered by Western handling of that election, Karzai pushed changes to the election commissions and the electoral law, removing the international delegates from the complaints commission, appointing new commissioners and outlawing a statistical method used for identifying fraud.
Dr Abdullah was the clear leader in the first round of this year’s election, with a 900,000-vote margin over Dr Ghani. But the preliminary results of the runoff showed a gigantic improvement for Dr Ghani – an “impossible” one, according to one Western official – of 1.9 million votes.
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