Despite pulling off a safer presidential election than expected, Afghanistan looks headed for a prolonged period of political uncertainty, with the two front-runners claiming victory before ballots are tallied and signaling they would not accept defeat.
The situation echoes 2014, when candidates Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah alleged massive fraud by each other, forcing the US to broker an awkward power-sharing arrangement that made Ghani president and Abdullah the chief executive.
Both men, front-runners again, say they would not accept a similar arrangement this time.
At the same time, Taliban insurgents rule more of the country than at any time since they were ousted from power nearly two decades ago, and have refused to accept the legitimacy of what they call a puppet US-backed government.
The unity government between the two candidates holds power until the winner is selected and takes office.
Results are expected on Saturday next week. If neither man wins more than half the votes, a runoff would take place.
“There is serious risk of an extended political crisis and divisive battle over the outcome, while the Taliban remain effectively unified,” said Colin Cookman, a program officer with the US Institute of Peace, who has analyzed Afghan politics since 2008.
Czech Republic Ambassador to Afghanistan Petr Stepanek said that a second round of voting would possibly not be held until spring, prolonging the uncertainty.
“The election commission can say: ‘The weather is bad,’ and postpone it for a couple of months,” Stepanek said. “Then we will have a weak government. A lame duck.”
About 4,500 complaints have been filed since the Sept. 28 election, providing possible ammunition for the loser to reject the results.
The Afghan Independent Election Commission on Sunday said that some biometric verification machines were lost.
Turnout was an estimated 2.6 million votes, about one-quarter of eligible voters, following threats by the Taliban against voting stations.
The Ghani camp has dismissed fears of a prolonged political stalemate.
This election included more checks and balances than ever to prevent fraud, leaving Abdullah little to complain about if he loses, said Daoud Sultanzoy, a senior Ghani campaign leader.
However the Abdullah camp is concerned about numerous irregularities, such as improbably high turnouts in insecure areas.
Abdullah would accept defeat if the election is clean and only biometrically verified votes are counted, said Mujib Rahman Rahimi, his spokesman.
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