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Pact cools Afghan confrontation -- for now

KABUL -- An agreement brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has defused the political crisis over the results of Afghanistan's contentious election that had threated to pull the country apart, but the situation remains volatile.

     Former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani each claimed victory in the runoff election held June 14 after the Independent Election Commission announced preliminary results on July 7 showing Ghani had received almost a million more votes than Abdullah.

     Abdullah, whose tally had topped Ghani's by a similar margin in the first round of voting on April 5, alleged that widespread fraud had distorted the runoff results. He indicated he was considering demands by his aides and supporters to form a government as they rallied in the capital, prompting U.S. President Barack Obama to call both candidates and to dispatch Kerry in an effort to resolve the stand off.

     Both sides agreed with Kerry on July 12 to accept the result of an audit of the 8.1 million ballots cast last month and to then form a national unity government.

Waiting for answers

But little has been said on exactly what such a government will look like.

     "It is not clear what a 'national unity government' means for the people," wrote Mohammad Reza on citizen media platform Paiwandgah amid expressions of joy from others that the crisis might be over. "It is not acceptable for politicians to play around with words. They should say what they mean."

     Many other members of Afghanistan's tech-savvy new generation took to social media to express their opinions, which reflected a mixture of optimism, indifference and disillusionment. "This is a big lesson for me in my life," wrote one Afghan youth on Facebook. "I won't take part in coming elections ... Presidential election (in Afghanistan) means a joke."

     One key detail of the U.S.-brokered deal is that whichever candidate is judged the loser in the vote audit will pick someone to serve as "chief executive" of the government as part of a transition toward a parliamentary system. The two candidates also agreed to give international observers a role in the audit process and to ask the government to delay the inauguration of the winner, which is currently scheduled for Aug. 2.

   The mediation of the stand-off comes as American and other foreign military forces wind down their presence in the country despite the continuing Taliban insurgency. The election will mark the country's first democratic transfer of power and the end of President Hamid Karzai's 13 years in office. Karzai is widely seen to prefer Ghani to Abdullah, who yielded to Karzai in the last presidential election in 2009 amid reports of extensive vote fraud.

Sheep stuffing

With news leaking of Ghani's lead in the election commission's preliminary tally last month, Abdullah alleged that Karzai had organized vote fraud on his rival's behalf and said his campaign would stop cooperating with the commission and observing the counting of the votes, which far exceeded the 6.6 million cast in the first round of the election.

     Abdullah's campaign released recordings of alleged phone calls between Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, then the election commission chief, members of Ghani's campaign staff and provincial electoral officials suggesting the parties were collaborating. A voice allegedly belonging to Amarkhail directed others to "stuff sheep," code for filling ballot boxes with illegal votes. Amarkhail resigned June 23 after the recordings spread online.

     The first-round vote had been seen as a success in the face of Taliban threats, but the mood changed amid the last month's finger pointing. Supporters of the two candidates used partisan and divisive language to discredit and attack the other side, with some taking to social media to organize demonstrations in various cities. On July 11, about 200 protesters formed a human chain in front of the entrance to Kabul's international airport, blocking vehicle traffic for hours.

     Atta Mohammad Noor, the powerful governor of northern Balkh Province and a prominent supporter of Abdullah, posted a Facebook message suggesting a "second generation of jihad" was coming if allegations of fraud were not addressed. Ordinary Afghans posted similarly acrimonious messages, leading the U.N. mission to Afghanistan to call for all parties to "refrain from inflammatory statements, hate speech, or statements which promote divisive ethnic mobilization." Noor took down his post, but some senators talked of a Facebook ban to prevent further incitement.

     Kerry's success at calming the waters between the two camps came at a crucial moment, with tensions in Kabul regarding the elections results reaching fever pitch as Noor and other Abdullah backers called on him to form a parallel government. With the U.S. suggesting its aid might be on the line, Abdullah held off and Ghani said, "I and Dr. Abdullah have the responsibility to ensure the stability of the country."

     Afghans hope stability can indeed take hold, but the election winner will still need to cope with the Taliban revolt and other challenges.

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