The Afghan ballot test

If Afghans fail to avoid political polarisation and ethnic chauvinism, it will imperil the post-2014 transition process.

The Afghan presidential run-off was mired by irregularities [AFP]

Millions of Afghans once again proved on June 14 – the day run-off elections for the country’s presidency were held – that despite terrorist threats and widespread low-level violence, they are vested in a democratic future.

However, the entrenched elites affiliated to the two contending camps backing Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani are at odds over ballot tallying, irregularities and procedural inconsistencies. If people lose trust in their leaders or consider their vote immaterial, then serious challenges await the country.

After bouts of patience and demands for a fair re-evaluation of allegations of fraud and unlawful activity prior and during the run-off, Abdullah finally cried foul on June 18 by asking his monitors and staff to suspend their work with the Independent Election Commission (IEC).

Asking for an investigation of inflated ballot numbers, he requested a joint commission be set up under United Nations supervision to deal with outstanding issues before the process could proceed.

Abdullah, distrustful of the electoral system, is not only questioning the role played by individuals and institutions, but also political motivations of the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai.

Abdullah claimed it was “clear as the sun” that Karzai was “not impartial”. Others in Kabul point to a serious rift within Karzai’s own inner circle, pitting the clique around his chief of staff against palace traditionalists.

Worrisome irregularities

Despite worrisome irregularities in the first round, and before agreeing to the run-off, Abdullah said he had received a certain level of assurance by Karzai, who played a key role in appointing the commissioners, pledging that the institutions would remain impartial.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was IEC chief Yusuf Nuristani’s refusal to sack his influential colleague, the controversial head of the Secretariat, after a video was released showing him on the scene of a coincidental police bust of ballots being illegally transported to stations outside the city on run-off day.

On the Front Lines with the Taliban

Other cases were presented when evidence surfaced in the media that ballot sheets were filled out prior to June 14, and used on election day, in favour of Ghani from areas with a low turnout or no turnout at all.

Even the most basic account of voter numbers became controversial when IEC chief Nuristani announced, without offering any definite evidence, that around 7 million voters had participated in the June 14 balloting. It has been estimated by independent sources and observers across the country that participation was lower than the April 5 vote.

The other issue that has rattled nerves is the unofficial claim by Ghani and IEC sources that he has received anywhere between 200 and 400 percent more votes this time around in areas where the population ratio is lower and where women seldom venture out.

Ghani, who had been outspoken against fraud in the first round in order to force a run-off, had a sudden change of tone, urging restraint and acceptance of the process. He asked Abdullah to refer his complaints to the relevant commission and not quit, even though Abdullah had not indicated any such intention.

Avoiding any reference to specifics, and amid mounting allegations of irregularity, Ghani said: “What matters is the transparent process of vote-counting and probe of any complaints there may be.”

Fraud and trust factors

Meanwhile in Washington DC, US Special Envoy for Afghanistan and Pakistan James Dobbins asked that the candidates allow the commissions to perform their duties, as though the fraud and trust factors were non-issues that could once again be put off.

While no immediate resolution is in sight at this stage, the country’s mood swung from national euphoria, after the first round, to a state of political anguish, primarily caused by an electoral system considered by many observers as flawed, drawn out and in need of an overhaul.

Afghanistan’s hidden gems

The immediate challenges to the run-off election, however, remain unresolved and are testing political nerves across the country. Neutral and competent arbitration mechanisms are non-existent, thus the call on the UN to intercede within a limited scope that has to be defined and agreed to by both contending sides.

Unless political leaders come to grips with the consequences of alleged fraud, and put aside one-upmanship by showing statesmanship in favour of transparency and credibility instead, the country’s political transition will face an untimely twist, increase the political trust deficit, deepen economic prospects, embolden terrorist outfits, and even complicate the US-NATO troop pullout.

Regardless of who benefits and who loses, someone needs to earnestly look into allegations of fraud. Afghans continue to be highly critical of the economic mafia that has strangled the country for years under Karzai’s indulgent rule, but it is difficult to believe that they will tolerate a political mafia which is partly tied to the other outfit, neutering their right to choose their next leader in a relatively lawful and acceptable manner.

Regardless of whether the process is put on hold or not, the next best option is to call on neutral and impartial agents to play a constructive role and suspend the officials whose credentials are disputed.

No proof

Recently, more than 4,000 IEC staff were arbitrarily accused of irregularity after the first round and were laid off, while there was no proof offered as to why and who replaced them.

This is not about ethnic balancing or one man winning or losing; It’s about the fate of a nation and the sacrifices made to get the country on the right track by enabling all Afghans, not just one group or community, to own and shape their shared destiny. Under such circumstances, even if one side wins, it will not be able to govern effectively and inclusively. The country will not accept anything short of a legitimate process that assures stability and acceptance.

Furthermore, Karzai’s legacy will end up in tatters if he forces a situation that prolongs his rule but jeopardises the country’s gains and the development of democratic governance.

The solution now lies in trying to play according to the rules, figure out a way that satisfies all sides with minimum hurt to the country’s stability and avoiding further divisiveness. It is probably too late to consider a collaborative resolution between the two camps since the damage is still too fresh and there is need for healing and a reset.

The international community, on the other hand, has a responsibility to play a constructive yet non-intrusive role, instead of pretending that all is fine or it’s a purely Afghan prerogative.

Since Afghans are in the driver’s seat, they need to avoid political polarisation and ethnic chauvinism – characteristic of some misguided elite groups – and respect the will of the voters. Failure to do so will serve no purpose, nor will it allow for the post 2014 transition to make headway.

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).