For the first time in more than a week of demonstrations alleging fraud in the second round of Afghanistan’s presidential election, the aggrieved candidate, Abdullah Abdullah — who led in the first round — has joined in the protests.
Friday morning’s gatherings saw thousands of Afghans swarm the streets of several neighborhoods across Kabul. Abdullah was joined by his running mates Mohammad Khan and Mohammad Mohaqiq at a rally near the presidential palace, where chants of “death to fraud” echoed from the crowd. He was also joined by Qayoum Karzai — incumbent President Hamid Karzai’s elder brother — former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh, and Salahuddin Rabbani, the head of the High Peace Council handling negotiations with the Taliban.
Speaking in Kabul’s Pashtunistan Square, Saleh verbally assailed Hamid Karzai, charging that the incumbent was complicit in what Abdullah’s team has called massive fraud.
Previous demonstrations had called for Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, the Independent Election Commission’s chief electoral officer, to be sacked. Amarkhail resignedfrom his post a day after Abdullah’s team broadcast audio tapes they said proved he was involved in ballot-stuffing for Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and Abdullah’s competitor in the runoff.
The content of those recordings, including a reference to “stuffed sheep,” a phrase Abdullah’s team has interpreted as code for ballot stuffing, became fodder for Friday’s protesters, many of whom displayed signs depicting Amarkhail with sheep.
Unlike earlier protests, the crowds on Friday also included children chanting “death to fraud!” and “death to Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai!” An eight-year-old named Nasir proudly held a sign with a cartoon sheep that read, “An election of sheep.”
Though several participants in earlier demonstrations had said they would relent if Amarkhail was dismissed, a young man named Ahmad Zubair told VICE News that he was continuing to protest in defense of the people’s rights.
“Whoever doesn’t defend their vote does not deserve the name Afghan,” he said, adding that “people like Amarkhail are killers of those who died for their votes” — a reference to election-day violence that killed 50 civilians.
An older protester named Haji Mohammad Salim echoed the widespread fear that Hamid Karzai, who is constitutionally banned from seeking a third term, has attempted to orchestrate the outcome of what was expected to be the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in Afghan history.
“In the end, Karzai’s fate will be the same as Gaddafi’s for his deliberate tampering with the election,” Salim told VICE News.
Afghans observing the protests from the sidelines wondered about the combative and negative tone of the demonstrations, however. Chants ranged from calling for the deaths of Ghani, Karzai, and Independent Election Commission chairman Ahmad Yusef Nuristani, to “We don’t want a Jew! This is a Muslim country!” — a reference to the false rumor that Ghani’s wife is Jewish.
One onlooker, who declined to identify himself by name, told VICE News that he didn’t understand the hostility.
“Abdullah, Karzai, and Ghani have all accomplished something in this nation, so why do we need to scream and shout such vile comments about them?” he asked. He feared that the gatherings could be putting thousands at risk.
“If there were a suicide bomber here right now, do you think Abdullah or Ghani or Mohaqiq would be here to help?”
The demonstrations came a day after Ghani announced that results gathered by his team put him in the clear lead with 4.2 million votes, with Abdullah trailing behind with 2.9 million votes. Though the Independent Election Commission has yet to release official results, Abdullah has long claimed that more than a million of Ghani’s votes are fraudulent.
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye
Photos by Frederick Paxton