Under assault, Afghanistan's nascent yet dynamic democracy is reaching a dangerous impasse, as claims of fraud and rigging remain insoluble, fuelling a crisis of confidence as a result of systemic flaws and political one-upmanship in the run-off elections held in mid-June.
Three paths remain to untangle the current stalemated situation: The first: The technical and legal option to aim for a timely, credible outcome through a transparent process involving Afghan stakeholders, with reliable international technical and professional oversight. The second: The political path that is already in progress, involving mediators and facilitators between the main actors to formulate a win-win solution within a collaborative framework. The third: A mix of the two, whereby election results are legitimised through a credible revision process acceptable to contending sides; whilst in parallel, the candidates take the high road and agree on a shared political outcome.
Failure to take the right path by the end of July will seriously jeopardise the country's political transition and may lead to untenable consequences.
Sensing the gravity of the situation, US Secretary of State John Kerry called Afghan President Hamid Karzai on July 1 urging that Afghan electoral institutions "conduct a full and thorough review that ensures the Afghan people have confidence in the integrity of the electoral process".
Consequences of failure
A political crisis is the least desirable outcome for the country at a time when Taliban cells backed by foreign militants and narco-traffickers are making a concerted effort to take control of several districts in the southern province of Helmand - not dissimilar from recent Islamic State (the group formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant - or ISIL) encroachments into Iraq and Syria.
While public disenchantment with Karzai's government is palpable, political mistrust is at all-time high. The source of deep concern is the realisation after several rounds of elections that the election commissions are not as independent as stipulated by the country's laws. Since the president is to a large extent responsible for the selection of commissioners, he has come under direct scrutiny, and is suspected of orchestrating the current dilemma.
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Abdullah Abdullah, one of the two leading finalists, broke relations with the country's Independent Election Commission (IEC) after his proposals on ways and means of dealing with allegations of fraud and irregularity were abruptly rejected by the electoral body on June 29.
A day earlier, thousands of peaceful anti-fraud protesters descended on several Afghan cities, asking for transparency in vote and voter counts, and election re-runs in specific areas where the tally was said to be much higher than the number of eligible voters, based on data produced by the Central Statistics Office and electoral precedence.
Abdullah, who opted out of the controversial 2009 run-off against Karzai because of a trust deficit in the electoral system, appeared among the demonstrators and his supporters, vowing not to back down this time.
He also asked that every clean vote be separated from the fraudulent ones, as part of a process that is not tainted and trusted by all sides. He said his campaign tabulation of turnout numbers, based on monitoring and reporting data during the run-off, shows a discrepancy of about two million votes when compared with the IEC's initial data.
Beneficiary of fraud?
Meanwhile, the rival team, led by Ashraf Ghani, has tried to avoid being blemished as the beneficiary of fraud, while maintaining cordial relations with electoral commissioners who were selected by Karzai, as part of a convoluted process last year.
Ghani's team was put under pressure, however, when various audio tapes acquired from unknown sources were released on three occasions by Abdullah's campaign, alledging collusion to commit fraud in several provinces. The phone recordings involve the IEC's senior and local staff, provincial and local government officials, Ghani supporters and, in some instances, staff from the office of the Chief of Staff to Karzai.
The audio tape saga led to the resignation of the influential head of the IEC's Secretariat, who in one tape is alleged to have used code words when he ordered a local official to "take the sheep up the mountain, stuff them, and bring them back".
While the tapes have yet to be authenticated by competent authorities, there is little doubt among pundits that they are genuine.
Pointing to presidential palace involvement, Abdullah, in turn, accused Karzai and members of his close-knit staff of orchestrating a complex plan involving election fraud for political ends.
Under pressure, Karzai first agreed to a United Nations' oversight role, and later asked his two vice presidents - one of whom, Yunus Qanooni, is a former associate of Abdullah's - and other facilitators to start mediation efforts between the two presidential contenders.
While Karzai is scrambling to distance himself from the growing scandal, he is also trying to manage the election calendar to suit his own political strategy. He has reiterated on several occasions that he expects partial results to be announced on July 2, and the final tally by July 22, in order to hand over power on August 2.
On July 1, the IEC postponed the announcement of initial results set for July 2, and decided to recount votes from more than 2000 polling centres.
Kerry welcomed the IEC decision and asked that measures be taken "to address the concerns of individual candidates". Kerry also stressed on the need to uphold "national unity" and support a process that "produces a president who can govern the country".
Key strategic questions that remain unanswered for the moment are whether Karzai is seeking a stalemate for some ulterior motive, or whether a secret pact between Ghani and the president is at the root of the current crisis?
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In either case, Abdullah's stance seems justified, as he fears a repeat of 2009 election or worse. At a meeting he held with members of the international community on July 1, he insisted on reliable mechanisms to assure transparency as a key pre-requisite for re-engagement.
In the first instance, the independent status of the IEC and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) need to be restored. Then Abdullah's multi-point proposals need to be revisited. Thirdly, any attempt to recount, re-run and adjudicate needs to be performed according to established laws, and have the endorsement and involvement of all sides.
A UN technical team must be assigned alongside competent Afghan monitoring groups to review the processes and recommend practical steps to address the key questions pertaining to the total turnout on election day and provincial turnout on the basis of population and eligibility.
On the political front, it is incumbent on Karzai's side to restore confidence and impartiality, as he had pledged to Abdullah prior to the elections. This means avoiding stoking tensions in order to concoct a crisis that would then provide him with political advantage and continuity.
Both Abdullah and Ghani need to step away from zero-sum options and base their calculations on the result of the popular vote after it is legitimised. It is also unhelpful for any side to speak or pretend to be the winner before the process is complete.
Devil in the details
Yes, the devil is in the details when it comes to Afghanistan's convoluted and multi-layered political and electoral systems. But all sides are now cognisant of the intricacies, and no side can claim, nor should attempt, to deceive the other. Doing so would be tantamount to duplicity.
It is now also clear that the monitoring performed at high cost by Afghan and international outfits failed to identify large-scale fraud. Future monitoring will need to be more professional and more accountable.
It is now incumbent upon all sides to re-evaluate their strategies, recommit to a transparent democratic process and agree to a resolution that would not endanger hard-earned gains, and Afghanistan's stability and unity. This can best be achieved if they put political ego and manipulative tactics aside, and aim for a collaborative outcome after election data is sorted out and its legitimacy assured.
This would not only restore Afghan people's faith in democracy as a solid foundation for future generations, but will also produce a unified government with a stronger mandate, wider acceptance and enhanced competence to govern more effectively.
Omar Samad is a senior Central Asia fellow at the New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.