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New Afghan president, but vote totals kept secret

Created: 09/21/2014 8:52 PM
By: JASON STRAZIUSO RAHIM FAIEZ

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Ending months of vote-related tension, Afghanistan's election commission named a new president Sunday only hours after the leading candidates signed a power-sharing deal that names one of them as the country's new chief executive.

The commission named Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai as the winner and next president and noted that his one-time rival, Abdullah Abdullah, will fill the newly created position of chief executive, a post akin to prime minister. But it pointedly did not release final vote totals amid concerns that doing so could inflame tensions.

The deal brings to a close an election season that began in April, when millions of Afghans first went to the polls despite threats from Taliban militants, and ended when the two leading candidates signed a national unity government agreement and embraced in a hug. In between, the Abdullah camp alleged that its cause was cheated by massive vote fraud.

A nation long tired of election bluffs and threats seemed to accept the electoral deal with a shrug. There were no mass celebrations in the streets of Kabul, and Afghan journalists reacted angrily when the election commission declined to release final results, abruptly ending a brief news conference without taking questions.

The United States applauded the deal and the White House said that "respect for the democratic process" is the only viable path forward for Afghanistan. But to many here, the next Afghan government appeared to be more a product of negotiation than vote tallies, especially given the fact a final count wasn't even released.

"I don't think anyone will vote again," said Masie Hajizada, a 26-year-old businessman. "They will have to do a lot of campaigning to get us to vote."

U.S. officials said they believed Ghani Ahmadzai would sign a security agreement soon after taking his oath of office that would allow some 10,000 American forces to remain in Afghanistan next year. After 13 years of war following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, all combat troops are to withdraw by the end of 2014.

Ghani Ahmadzai and Abdullah signed the national unity government deal as President Hamid Karzai — in power since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion ousted the Taliban — looked on. It took weeks of negotiations to form a power-sharing arrangement after accusations of fraud in the June runoff vote.

"I am very happy today that both of my brothers, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, in an Afghan agreement for the benefit of this country, for the progress and development of this country, that they agreed on the structure affirming the new government of Afghanistan," Karzai said after the signing.

The deal is a victory for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who first got the candidates to agree in principle to share power during a July visit to Afghanistan. Kerry returned to Kabul in August and has spent hours with the candidates, including in repeated phone calls, in an effort to seal the deal.

Kerry lauded the two leaders, saying the agreement helps bring closure to Afghanistan's political crisis.

"Americans know very well that the road to democracy is contentious and challenging, but it's a road that leads to the best place. It doesn't happen overnight. We've had our own contentious elections and witnessed their aftermath. ... But if my recent visits to Kabul and the hours upon hours on the phone with these two men have taught me anything, it's how invested Afghanistan is in this historic effort," Kerry said in a statement.

In New York, the U.N. Security Council issued a press statement welcoming the "conclusion of Afghanistan's presidential election," adding that member countries looked forward to working with the new "Government of National Unity."

Jan Kubis, the top U.N. official in Afghanistan, said the uncertainty of the past months took a heavy toll on Afghanistan's security, economy and governance. NATO said in a statement that it hoped both leaders could move forward "in the spirit of genuine political partnership."

The decision not to release vote totals underscores the fear of potential violence despite Sunday's deal. One of Abdullah's final demands was that the election commission not release the vote count because of the fraud he alleges took place.

Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, chairman of the election commission, said the final ballot counts have been shared with both candidates and that the commission would announce the numbers publicly later.

A Ghani Ahmadzai supporter — Halim Fidai, a former governor — said Sunday that Kubis, the U.N. representative, told the commission not to release vote tallies. However, a U.N. official said the allegation was not true and the U.N. was only facilitating dialogue between the candidates and the election commission regarding the release of results. The official insisted on anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly.

A senior U.S. official said the vote result was transparent but may only be released slowly due to fears of violence. The official insisted on anonymity because he was not authorized to be identified publicly.

Ghani Admadzai supporters and election commission reports circulating on social media said that the final vote gave Ghani Ahmadzai roughly 55 percent and Abdullah roughly 45 percent.

The four-page power sharing contract says the relationship between president and chief executive — a position akin to prime minister — must be defined by "partnership, collegiality, collaboration, and, most importantly, responsibility to the people of Afghanistan."

It spells out the powers for the new chief executive position: participation with the president in bilateral meetings, carrying out administrative and executive affairs as determined by presidential decree, and parity in selection of key security and economic ministries.

The deal specifies that the president leads the Cabinet but that the chief executive manages the Cabinet's implementation of government policies. The chief executive will also chair regular meetings of a council of ministers, which appeared to basically be watered-down Cabinet meetings.

An inauguration ceremony was expected within days. Abdullah's spokesman Fazel Sancharaki said the event could be held on Sept. 29.

As talks dragged on, Abdullah's mostly northern supporters had threatened to form a parallel government or react violently to any outright victory by Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and World Bank official whose power base is in the country's south and east. Ghani Ahmadzai said he always maintained that ethnic politics in Afghanistan demand some sort of power sharing deal and not a winner-takes-all government.

Abdullah believes he won the first round of the election in April with more than 50 percent of the vote, which would have precluded a runoff. But the official results showed him winning about 45 percent of that vote in a crowded presidential field of 10.

He also believes he won a June runoff with Ghani Ahmadzai. But initial results totals showed Ghani Ahmadzai with about 56 percent of the vote. After the recount the election commission invalidated 1 million of the approximately 8.1 million cast in the runoff, according to the unreleased vote counts, suggesting that fraud was indeed widespread. Ghani Ahmadzai enjoyed the backing of much of the state machinery, a government accused of massive fraud in the 2009 election as well.

With Abdullah behind in the official count, he had no path to the presidency other than creating a parallel government or fomenting mass violence, two paths his campaign said he would not pursue. The power-sharing deal, in the end, gave his northern power base a strong slice of executive power.

A power-sharing deal was almost sealed about a week ago, but Abdullah then demanded that no vote totals from the runoff be released.

The U.S. official said the United States government believes the new president was declared as the result of quantitative electoral results from many millions of legitimate votes and that though a political agreement was made to form a unity government the government is headed by a president decided upon by an electoral process.

U.N. and Afghan election officials spent weeks auditing the runoff results after allegations of fraud, a common occurrence over Afghanistan's last two presidential elections. Abdullah's side maintained the fraud was so sophisticated it was undetectable.

The U.S. has been pushing for a resolution so the next president can sign a security agreement that would allow about 10,000 U.S. forces to remain in the country after combat operations wrap up at the end of the year. Karzai refused to sign it; Ghani Ahmadzai has said he will.

The 13-year war against the Taliban has largely been turned over to Afghan security forces, a development that has seen casualties among Afghan soldiers rise significantly this year.

The U.S. and international community will continue to fund the Afghan army in the coming years but the Afghans themselves will have to fend off Taliban attempts to again take over wide areas of the country.

(Copyright 2014 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

Photo: MGN
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