Afghanistan: The stakes are high

Second round or not, there are only a few days left to reach a credible electoral outcome acceptable to most Afghans.

Afghans are proud to be owners of their destiny, writes Samad [Reuters]

Nothing is simple in Afghanistan; least of all conducting general elections under strenuous conditions that are meant to produce the country’s first ever democratic transfer of power. The recent historic presidential and provincial council elections held on April 5 were a resounding success in terms of popular participation and ownership, but the stakes remain high as consequential challenges lie ahead.

In Afghanistan there is euphoria mixed with disbelief in the air: First, about the turnout of 6.9 million citizens, 36 percent of whom were women, who defied Taliban coercion and enthusiastically endorsed a democratic future; second, about the laborious and cumbersome ballot counting and validation process that is testing political trust and cohesiveness; and third, about overall stability and the sustainability of elections in case fraud and manipulation undermine legitimacy and credibility.

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced preliminary results this week, which revealed former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah holding the lead with 44.95 percent of the votes – short of a winning majority. The first-runner up, former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani is 13 points behind. Out of 34 provinces, Ghani leads in 13, Abdullah in 20, leaving Zalmai Rassoul, considered to have been President Hamid Karzai’s implicit favourite, ahead only in Kandahar province.

Vote counting and adjudication

The ball is now in the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission’s (ECC) court. Most observers, including the IEC chairman, predict a run-off, while the ECC chair is non-committal, stressing the need to sort out and adjudicate the complaints first.

With key questions still outstanding about the performance of the IEC commissioners, the ECC will be under tight scrutiny given frayed confidence in how the process has unfolded so far.

Final validation is expected around mid-May. If a run-off is warranted, the Afghans will be heading to the ballots once more, two weeks after the final announcement is made.

There are already vocal constituencies who claim that parts of the electoral process have been designed to disfavour one candidate over others. The abrupt invalidation of about 100,000 votes in the Abdullah stronghold of Herat province… have raised suspicions that they were part of ploys engineered ahead of time.

An emerging issue is the standoffish position adopted by the two leading contenders. Abdullah’s team, confident of having garnered more than the simple majority needed to win in the first round, has registered several dozen complaints with the ECC. It has not indicated its readiness to go to a second round yet, unless it is satisfied that all votes have been accounted for in a relatively transparent manner.

On the other hand, Ghani’s team is now desperately eager to contest in the second round, upping the ante by claiming that any attempt to force a win in the first round would be tantamount to fraud.

Both teams have galvanised support from active parts of the Afghan intelligentsia and technocratic circles, especially among reformers. They have both expressed a desire to be inclusive and base appointments on merit. However, they differ in their approach to dealing with the Taliban, and are known to have contrasting styles of management and temperament.

Both candidates have also made it clear that they are not in favour of forming a coalition government, as demonstrated by lukewarm and failed behind-the-scenes mediation attempts to foster a collaborative arrangement.

Ironically, other actors who aim to benefit from the current standoff are: a) the other six candidates, who collectively won around 23 percent of the total tally, but whose votes, in case of a run-off, may split and have an undetermined impact on the final outcome, and b) Karzai, whose core supporters do not seem unified on who they will back – Abdullah or Ghani.

While Karzai is believed to yield influence within the two commissions, he is treading delicately, knowing that his reputation and legacy are on the line. The last thing Karzai needs at this juncture is to be accused of playing favourites, and inadvertently provoke ethnic and regional schisms.

There are already vocal constituencies who claim that parts of the electoral process have been designed to disfavour one candidate over others. The abrupt invalidation of about 100,000 votes in the Abdullah stronghold of Herat province, and the inability of tens of thousands of voters in key centres in the North, West and even Kabul to vote on election day due to a critical shortage of ballots, have raised suspicions that they were part of engineered tactics.

There is growing evidence that both the IEC and the United Nations’ political and election support agencies were forewarned about rigging techniques, stressing that ballot sheet numbers and distribution are key concerns. But not much was done to address these fears when it was possible.

While the IEC chair vehemently denies any premeditated attempt to skew the results, there is growing distrust of some staff with political links at the provincial and district levels.

Debunking myths

Despite ongoing political debates, as well as legal and technical wrangling, Afghans are proud to be owners of their own destiny, to have the opportunity to send a strong message of support for a democratic future, not only to their own political class, but also to the Taliban, their neighbours and to the donor community whose support over the past 13 years has been critical for starting a new chapter.

They also demonstrated unity as a nation and made demands as voters on a national scale.

Cognisant that no election is perfect, they also debunked several myths floating about their country and their national outlook: They transcended ethnic boundaries and dispelled the fiction of tribal and Taliban-like homogeneity. Abdullah has captured double-digit support in almost all Pashtun provinces, whereas Ghani has strong support among the country’s Uzbeks; they proved that 13 years of international investment in their country is paying off, especially in regards to the formation of effective security forces, and youth and gender empowerment; they proved that a vibrant civil society, private sector and a free media can usher positive changes; they expressed a deep desire for change, reform and progress.

If the blame for all things gone wrong over the past 13 years is shared by all main local and international stakeholders, the credit for all things gone right should also be shared by them.

To be fair, part of the credit also goes to Karzai who, at the end of the day, allowed the process to go forward and resisted attempts by spoilers within his own inner circle to engage in heavy-handed manipulation of the election process. History will now judge him on his stance vis-a-vis the remainder of the process.

Doing the right thing

Given the complexity of the process, there are fundamental lessons that can be learnt and applied to strengthen the constitutional order and electoral institutional development. It is evident from this and previous national ballots that the various phases of the cumbersome process, from voter registration to vote counting, need to be reviewed, accelerated and simplified during future elections.

Afghanistan’s longer-term challenge is to institutionalise good electioneering, build up trust among political constituencies, further break down existing barriers and mindsets and satisfy the popular demand for better governance and rule of law.

In the short term, the people have spoken, but their votes have yet to be appropriately and impartially taken into account. Regardless of whether a second round is warranted or not, there are only a few days left to reach a credible outcome acceptable to most Afghans.

The stakes are high. The people and history are witnesses. There is no room for deliberate or even accidental bungling.

Omar Samad is a senior Central Asia fellow at New America Foundation. He was Afghanistan’s ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009), and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004).