As results began to trickle in the night of Afghanistan's second round of presidential voting, Abdullah Abdullah — the former foreign minister and current presidential candidate who led after the first round of voting — found himself needing to shift his thinking. In the weeks leading up to the runoff, Abdullah was said to be busy promising government posts to those who supported him along the way.
Now, he was trying to understand why the official tally showed him behind by 1 million votes.
“With big-name candidates from round one like Gol Agha Sherzai, Zalmai Rassoul, and Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf endorsing him, Abdullah was certain he would secure the bulk of what he thought had become a divided Pashtun vote," said a source close to ongoing negotiations between Abdullah and the United Nations. But as results began to come in, Abdullah’s confidence was shaken — Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former finance minister and his runoff competitor, looked to be in a commanding lead.
Election watchers knew it was a risky move for Abdullah to assume that those who voted for his big-name endorsers in the first round would transfer their votes to him.
“Sherzai, Sayyaf, and the like may have gone to Abdullah, but the tribes behind them felt betrayed, so they rallied around Ashraf Ghani," a source familiar with Ghani’s campaign strategy told VICE News. "They even secured the areas themselves and encouraged their wives and daughters to vote for Ghani."
Abdullah had been characterized as overly confident going into the second round. But still, alarm bells started sounding even before the polls closed.
The first signs of something amiss came on Election Day, starting with claims that Chief Electoral Officer of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail was participating in voter fraud after his staff was found moving carloads of unused ballots from the IEC’s headquarters in Kabul two hours before polls were set to close. Abdullah said that they were to be used for ballot stuffing on behalf of Ghani, a charge the IEC has denied.
'Regardless of who is atop it,' Abdullah told us, 'it is important that the future government of Afghanistan is a legitimate one.'
Then came an announcement by Ahmad Yusef Nuristani, chairman of the IEC, that “more than seven million” people cast ballots in the runoff. He said this hours after election workers and journalists reported that turnouts had actually been lower than they were during the first round of voting in which only 6.6 million people cast votes.
Barely a week after the polls closed, Abdullah made his suspicions public, saying President Hamid Karzai had not taken evidence of fraud seriously.
The following weeks were full of additional accusations: audio recordings of conversations said to be between high-profile provincial officials and members of the IEC, repeated accusations against Karzai, and Abdullah’s announcement that he was boycotting the electoral process. Twice.
This has left an election that was supposed to be the first peaceful, democratic transition of power in Afghanistan in a stalemate.
Though both sides have acknowledged that they're talking to each other, Ghani told the Voice of America that he has not cut any political deals with his rival. And while many people say Abdullah is unwilling to do much negotiating, he told VICE News in an interview at his house in Kabul that the most important thing to him is the integrity of the democratic process.
“Regardless of who is atop it," Abdullah told us, "it is important that the future government of Afghanistan is a legitimate one."
That said, Abdullah left little possibility of a legitimate Ghani victory. “We will be in a good lead” once fraudulent votes are discounted, he added.
The final decision may not be left up to Ghani, Abdullah, or even the Afghan people. Instead, the kingmaker could be Karzai, who some believe is waiting for the right moment to end the deadlock.
“He is going to keep the international community happy with the transition of power, but he will try and negotiate to get some things for the loser, because he knows that will make number two beholden to Karzai," said Daoud Sultanzoy, a former MP and presidential candidate who was one of the first to endorse Ghani in the second round.
Others say that with so many doubts surrounding this election, everyone involved will have reason to feel indebted to Karzai. “There has been so much fraud by both sides that even the winner knows Karzai will always have something to hold over him," a source close to both camps told VICE News.
For his part, Abdullah admits that Karzai did not “preserve his neutrality in the first or second round," but Abdullah’s tone regarding his former rival seems to have softened in recent weeks. “He should be respected in the future in spite of what has happened," he said.
Abdullah told VICE News that “indirect talks” have already begun between members of his team and those of Ghani’s, and that he is positive Ghani will engage in direct talks. For many election watchers, the possibility of talks are a good sign, indicating the election process seems to be moving toward a resolution.
“Kabul is small, especially if you run in those circles," Sultanzoy said. "Everyone knows each other, everyone has a history with one another, either politically or personally.”
Karzai and Ghani are both pushing for a solution before the planned August 2 inauguration, but Abdullah told VICE News that a cutoff date cannot be so easily determined.
"[We can't] sacrifice the rights of the people in favor of a date," he said. "I don’t think the people are waiting for the wrong solution.”
Follow Ali M Latifi on Twitter: @alibomaye