Muted reaction to Afghan poll result despite warlord's rallying cry

By: AFP      Published: 06:41 PM, 19 Feb, 2020

Afghanistan vice president Abdul Rashid Dostum, a powerful warlord who has long held undue sway over the country's politics, called on his supporters Wednesday to take to the streets to protest against the re-election of President Ashraf Ghani.

Ghani on Tuesday was declared winner of the presidential election -- five months after it was held -- prompting a muted response from the international community as well as ordinary Afghans weary of the dragged-out process.

The result was immediately rejected by Ghani's main rival, former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, as well as his running mate Dostum. Dostum served as Ghani's running mate in 2014, but the burly 65-year-old Uzbek warlord has switched allegiances many times since joining the Afghan army in the 1970s -- fighting for the Soviets against the mujahideen and then with the alliance that helped overthrow the Taliban.

He has been vice president mostly in name alone, having spent much of the past four years in exile after being accused of rape and kidnapping.

On Wednesday, Dostum said the announcement by the election commission amounted to a "coup", and called on supporters to "hit the streets" to celebrate Abdullah's victory. "I, as your leader... ask you to support Dr Abdullah with all your life and power," he said.

Despite the rallying cry, there was little sign of major protests -- or celebrations -- across the country. Ordinary Afghans have shown little passion for Abdullah, Ghani, or the election process in general, with most of them abstaining from voting in last year's lacklustre election that saw a tired lineup of candidates pitch few new ideas.

The international community has also remained unusually silent in the wake of the results, with little in the way of public congratulations to Ghani or comments on Abdullah's announcement that he would form his own parallel government.

"While it is up to Afghans to decide the election outcome, our priority -- and what we believe to be the priority of most Afghans -- remains peace and the peace process," Molly Phee, deputy to US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, told a gathering at the US Institute of Peace in Washington late Tuesday.

'Reduction in violence'

The final results come just as Washington seeks a deal with the Taliban which would allow it to withdraw troops in return for various security guarantees, and a promise that the militants would hold peace talks with the Afghan government.

An Afghan official said the two foes could sign the deal on February 29 in Doha, depending on how well a confidence-building "reduction in violence" period plays out. Abdullah's intent to try to form a separate government brought back memories of the angrily contested 2014 election, which also saw Ghani declared the winner.

That time, Abdullah's supporters held violent demonstrations before the US finally intervened to broker an awkward deal between the two rivals, with Ghani as the president and Abdullah as the Chief Executive. More than five years on, the apathy of Afghans and reluctance of the international community to intervene meant it was not clear how much support Abdullah would get.

"We're still in a democracy," policy analyst Mariam Safi told AFP, warning that Abdullah would have to find legal justifications as well as popular support for his move. "It's a huge question mark... (in) the next couple of days we'll start to see a few things come out that might signal where this is going."

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