Kerry, Afghan candidate discuss vote impasse

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KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ratcheted up the pressure on Afghanistan's rival presidential contenders to reach a compromise on a national unity government, reminding them that Washington and the international community will withdraw financial support if they fail to strike a deal, a campaign official said Thursday.

Kerry, who brokered an agreement last month committing the two Afghan candidates to accept the results of an internationally monitored recount, has taken a leading role in trying to resolve the standoff over the drawn-out election between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. Ballots were first cast in April and again in a June runoff, but no winner has been decided amid contentious talks over a power-sharing deal.

The U.S. is eager for an agreement so the new president can sign a security deal with the U.S., which hopes to withdraw all but 10,000 of its troops by year's end, when international combat operations officially end.

Kerry dialed into a meeting of Abdullah's leadership council late Wednesday and early Thursday that was attended by President Barack Obama's top representative to the region, Dan Feldman, as well as the U.S. and British ambassadors and the top U.N. representative to Afghanistan, said Nasrullah Arsalai, an Abdullah campaign manager.

"I think it helped a lot because I saw in our leadership council the flexibility to see the realities and see the necessity of flexibility more than before because this address of Secretary Kerry and these ambassadors contributed in the clarification of some issues," Arsalai told The Associated Press.

U.S. Embassy spokeswoman Monica Cummings said Kerry "continues to engage directly with both candidates in order to facilitate a political agreement to bring about a government of national unity and resolve the electoral impasse in Afghanistan."

Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai met face-to-face Thursday afternoon, said Arsalai.

One of Abdullah's demands is that the vote results from the runoff not be released because he contends that undetectable fraud invalidates the results, Arsalai said. Instead, his team argues that the nation voted in large numbers for Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai and they should lead together in an agreed-upon national unity government.

Abdullah also wants the newly created position of chief executive to chair Cabinet meetings and for both candidates to sign off on the appointment of high-level government positions, Arsalai said. Ghani Ahmadzai believes the constitution mandates that the president lead Cabinet meetings.

Dawood Sultanzoi, a Ghani Ahmadzai supporter, said his side does not find it acceptable to not announce the vote results. After a total examination of ballots cast for potential fraud, the election commission is giving Ghani Ahmadzai about 55 percent of the vote, his supporters say.

"We know who is the winner, but if it's not officially announced, they are admitting their defeat but crying foul also," Sultanzoi said. "It's the people of this country who voted. They're entitled to know the results of this election after months of campaigns."

Fears have been raised that if talks break down the chances of violence increase. Arsalai said Abdullah is committed to a national unity government and will not "push this country into crisis."

The ballot recount and fraud investigations have all been completed, but the country's election commission has not yet said when it will announce results.

"My prediction is that whether they accept this formula or not, the election results will be announced, they will scream and shout here and there, a government will be created, some of their people will be accommodated in the government, and things will go back to normal within a few weeks," Sultanzoi said.

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