KABUL, Afghanistan — After hours of pitched political drama that sent President Obama and other officials scrambling to calm a surge of Afghan factional hostility, the presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah walked a perilous line Tuesday, threatening to declare his own government even while urging his frenzied supporters to give him time to negotiate.
Just a day before, the Afghan Independent Election Commission released preliminary results that showed Abdullah, who led in the first round, more than 1 million votes behind his rival, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. US officials, including the senior envoy to Afghanistan, James F. Dobbins, had urged the panel not to announce the tally before conducting a widespread audit, Dobbins.
Supporters from both political camps demonstrated in the streets, hailing their candidates as the president despite the caution of election officials that the results were not final. Several powerful allies of Abdullah have publicly called for him to form a breakaway regime, incensed that the government would release results they say have been engineered by Ahmadzai, the election commission, and President Hamid Karzai.
But Abdullah stopped just short of taking that action Tuesday. Instead, he asked his supporters gathered in Kabul for more time to decide the right course of action, citing the urging of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, who is coming to Afghanistan on Friday in response to the crisis.
“The people of Afghanistan have been asking us to announce our government today, and we can’t disregard this right,” Abdullah said. “I am not going to betray you; just give me time to defend justice, freedom, the rule of law, and the people’s right. Give me time.”
The gathering, a few thousand officials, elders, and supporters, erupted in anger at his request. Several called on him to announce his own government on the spot, yelling over the longtime opposition leader even as he urged them to trust him. Before the speech, supporters who were gathered in the crowded auditorium ripped a picture of Karzai from the wall before tearing it into pieces, an action that Abdullah later chastised them for.
Lurking beneath the surface is a growing fear that ethnic tensions could erupt into violence. While Abdullah is of mixed ethnicity, his core of supporters hail from the Tajik faction, a group that has long felt cut off from the top tiers of power in Afghanistan. Ahmadzai, meanwhile, owes much of his support to fellow Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, who have historically ruled the nation.
Those long-held feelings of marginalization have helped drive the current animosity felt by Abdullah’s supporters. Many say they believe their leaders will never be allowed to govern Afghanistan, regardless of the vote counts. Abdullah’s history also feeds the narrative: He withdrew from the 2009 presidential runoff after evidence of widespread fraud was uncovered.
While fraud was committed on both sides, he felt he would not get a fair shot in the runoff against his opponent, Karzai, who is also a Pashtun.
But Abdullah is walking a fine line, at once talking about Afghan unity while also threatening to tear the country in half if his demands are not met. Over the past several weeks, the rhetoric of his followers has intensified as each of Abdullah’s acts of brinkmanship has failed to get election officials to meet his demands.
Now, it seems he might have overestimated his ability to curb the crowds he whipped up, as evidenced by the hostile response from his supporters Tuesday. At no point did the crowd ever concede to his demands for more time to ponder his next move. After several speakers requested that the crowd calm down and listen, the candidate left the stage.
Abdullah’s request for more time offered a potential reprieve for Western officials, who have been trying to broker a resolution. Over the weekend, it briefly appeared as though the two presidential teams were approaching an agreement on an audit of the runoff vote, a condition that Abdullah laid down before he would agree to rejoin the process.