KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — Just days away from Afghanistan’s presidential election, leading challenger and current Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah alleged that the vote is threatened by widespread abuses of power by his rival, incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, during an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday.
Abdullah, who ran against Ghani five years ago in what were widely dismissed as deeply flawed polls, said he fears a skewed outcome again could threaten the country’s tottering democracy.
“We have registered quite a few complaints, but this is just the tip of the iceberg,” Abdullah said, referring to his Ghani’s infractions.
“My main concern will be that massively fraudulent elections … will have an impact on the mentality of the people, on the views of the people, the democratic process, whether it is functioning or not,” he said. “If it is not functioning, what’s the other way to go ahead with your goals?”
A contested election marked by violence could destabilize the country. Many in Afghanistan fear heavily armed supporters of the losing candidates will turn their weapons on each other if Saturday’s voting, which is notoriously flawed in Afghanistan, again seem mired in fraud.
The 2014 presidential election was so mired in fraud allegations that the United States decided a winner would not be declared. Instead, the U.S. divided power between Ghani and his leading rival, Abdullah, to form a power-sharing government.
Speaking at his heavily guarded home in the capital, Abdullah said his big worry on election day is ballot stuffing.
He looked visibly tired from a rigorous campaign that began in earnest barely two weeks ago, after a deal with the Taliban that seemed imminent was declared “dead” by President Donald Trump.
Until then, campaigning had been subdued, with many of the 18 presidential candidates not even holding events. The assumption was that any peace deal would lead to a new interim government, making the scheduled election irrelevant.
Some prominent Afghan leaders, including former president Hamid Karzai, have warned that elections threaten Afghanistan’s best chance at peace, urging all sides to return to the negotiating table.
Abdullah said he was ready to talk to the Taliban and accused Ghani of squandering an opportunity to push the peace process when the U.S. and Taliban were talking.
The Taliban, who are deadly opposed to Saturday’s polls, have issued repeated threats, and on Thursday, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed issued a fresh warning telling Afghans to stay inside on Saturday or risk being hurt in attacks.
“Security threats have an impact on people … it is a big deal,” said Abdullah.
Still, despite the threats leading up to Saturday’s vote, Afghans have attended rallies, sometimes in the tens of thousands, he said.
Ghani and Abdullah went into high gear after Trump’s Sept. 7 announcement. Some candidates have dropped out of the race, but the 18 original contenders for Afghanistan’s top job are still on the ballot. To win the first round of voting, a candidate needs a 51% majority.
With no outright winner, a second round of voting will be held.
Abdullah and Ghani, who are the favorites to win, have crisscrossed the country, sometimes addressing two and three rallies in a single day in different parts of Afghanistan.
Campaigning ended at midnight on Wednesday, two days before the polls open Saturday at 7 a.m. local time, in keeping with Afghanistan’s electoral rules.
There are 9.6 million eligible voters, although many observers are anticipating a low turnout, in part because of frustration over the relentless corruption and mismanagement of the billions of dollars in international assistance that has come to Afghanistan since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001.
Abdullah has been in power since then and is associated with the many warlords who are often blamed for the worst of the violence and corruption. The warlords are mujahedeen leaders who fought against the former Soviet Union and later the Taliban.
Noticeably irritated at the reference, Abdullah put the blame for the worst of the corruption on those who returned to Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban, particularly Ghani.
Associated Press writer Tameem Akhgar contributed to this report.