KABUL, Afghanistan – Afghanistan’s two rival candidates reached a breakthrough agreement Saturday to a complete audit of their contested presidential election and, whoever the victor, a national unity government.
The deal, brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, offers a path out of what threatened to be a debilitating political crisis for Afghanistan, with both candidates claiming victory and talking of setting up competing governments.
Such a scenario could have dangerously split the fragile country’s government and security forces at a time the U.S. is pulling out most of its troops and the Taliban continues to wage a fierce insurgency.
Instead, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah consented to abide by a 100 percent, internationally supervised audit of all 8 million ballots in the presidential election and a national unity government once the results are announced.
But Kerry, who brokered the breakthrough after two days of negotiations, warned early Sunday that much work still remained. This will be still a difficult road because there are important obligations required and difficult decisions to be made, Kerry said.
The audit is expected to take a number of weeks and would begin with the ballot boxes in Kabul. Ballot boxes from the provinces are to flown to the capital by helicopter by U.S. and international forces and examined on rolling basis.
Representatives from each campaign as well as international observers will help oversee the review, and the candidate with the most votes would be declared the winner and become president.
Both candidates agreed to respect the result, and the winner would immediately form a national unity government. The inauguration, which had been scheduled for Aug. 2, would be postponed.
Abdullah, who spoke first at the news conference announcing the breakthrough, said the election created serious challenges.
But he praised Ghani for ideas on how the audit would be conducted and the framework for a unity government would be established once the victor is determined.
Ghani returned the compliments to Abdullah, lauding his competitor’s patriotism and commitment to a dialogue that promotes national unity.
Stability is the desire of everyone, Ghani said. Our aim is simple: We’ve committed to the most thorough audit in history. Such a process would remove any ambiguity about the result, he added.
The announcement came as a relief to a country on edge and worried about how the election dispute would resolve itself.
Both the full audit and the agreement to form a unity government drew praise from television commentators immediately after the speeches.