As Afghanistan approaches the September 2 deadline for the inauguration of its new president – though this could be pushed by a few days – talk of an uprising has resurfaced. It is said that tens of thousands of ethnic non-Pashtuns anticipating a loss at the end of a total vote recount and a less than full partnership in a political arrangement, are fully armed and ready to wreak havoc on Kabul. There are also hints from the opposing team that the Pashtuns, the country’s largest ethnic group, are ready to answer violence with violence.
How did a presidential election that seemed so promising at the outset lead to the possibility of plunging Afghanistan back into unrest?
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Failure of the electoral process
By the closing of the first round of the presidential election on April 5, the Afghan media and people in the streets were repeating one mantra: “We created legend today.” Indeed, the over six-million voter turnout at ballot boxes in spite of Taliban threats and despite over 30 years of perpetual conflict, undemocratic regimes and abject poverty, was heroic. Some Afghan newspapers dubbed the high participation “the Afghan Spring”.
The euphoria quickly faded as candidates cried foul, hidden games and interferences began to emerge and the election went into a runoff, with Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani vying for the top job. Polarisation of the political elite intensified, mostly along ethnic lines and threats of uprisings and coups brought back painful memories of the 1992-1996 internecine conflict. The runoff campaigns galvanised stupefied voters through ethnic slogans, mostly the classic fear of the “other”. Discontent became the order of the day.
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A direct US diplomatic intervention resulted in a vague agreement between Abdullah and Ghani, in which the latter accepted his rival’s demand for a total recount and clean-up of fraudulent votes under close supervision by the United Nations and international observers and both contenders to power agreed to devise details of a government of national unity (GNU).
Yet, disagreements over details of the “agreement” continued to bog down both the technical side of things, i.e., the recount process, as well as the political part, which was creation of the GNU.
Over a year ago, a group of Afghan intellectuals and politicians proposed a framework for a “government of national unity”. The assumption was that a winner-takes-all solution would be unlikely due to ground realities in Afghan politics and an untameable appetite for power among the country’s political elite.
Coalition governments had proven disastrous time and again. So, instead of yet another dysfunctional power sharing arrangement among political leaders, the scheme proposed a formula whereby the winner would include a sizable number of professional, well-educated and well-reputed individuals from among the supporters of his defeated rival into his government, while a council of prominent political leaders would be formed to advise the president on matters of national importance.
Last week, Abdullah pulled his observers out of the recount process, claiming that the UN was not implementing all the items in his team’s proposed criteria. The world body then asked Ghani to pull out his observers so as to avoid suspicions of bias in the remaining work of recount.
The focus now seems to be on negotiations over the formation of the GNU. In view of the presidential system sanctioned in the Afghan constitution, Abdullah’s team insists on the creation of the post of Chief Executive Officer, with much of the executive authorities that a prime minister would have in a parliamentary system. The post, both sides agree, would become constitutional in two years by amending the country’s law and instituting a parliamentary system.
The point of contention at this point is over the authorities of the CEO. Abdullah’s negotiators define the post as a virtual head of government, independent from the president. The Ghani team, pointing to the unconstitutionality of such authorities insists that appointment and authorities of the CEO must be at the discretion of the president, until the constitution is amended.
In addition, Abdullah’s camp would not accept less than an equal share in appointments and policy decisions, while Ghani’s compromise stops short of a sanctioned 50-50 partnership.
Insider accounts indicate that the two candidates have developed a good personal rapport and when meeting tete-a-tete, agree on most issues. Powerful political allies on both sides, however, are the main impediment in finalisation of the agreement. Their understanding of a government of national unity is a power sharing arrangement based on percentage distribution among the leaders. Full partnership or unleashing of armed militias is their bottom line.
Karzai’s new plan
Bullying the Afghan nation does not end here. Latest rumours indicate that the seemingly outgoing president, Hamed Karzai, is toying with an alternative scenario, in which an interim government would be established for two years. This government will, in effect, be a conglomerate of all big wig leaders, headed either by President Karzai or a man of his choice. The dissatisfied allies in both camps, who have so far created obstacles for an Abdullah-Ghani agreement, are purported to favour this scenario, irrespective of its unconstitutionality.
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Though the world does not seem to be ready to stomach continuation of a Karzai presidency in Afghanistan, expediency and a deal with the Afghan president – possibly including agreement on the US-Afghan Bilateral Strategic Agreement, which he so far has refused to sign – might prompt Washington to opt for this, as the easiest solution.
The US and the rest of the international community has a record of quickly succumbing to threats of violence in Afghanistan and pressuring conflicting sides into superficial agreements. Moreover, Washington appears to favour an arrangement that would reduce the authorities of the president to minimise the risk of a repetition of the tensions it experienced with President Karzai. Thus, it is more likely that a compromise government be announced soon. All indications show, however, that this government will be yet another division of posts among top leaders based on percentages, rather than a government of national unity that would include all ethnicities and segments of the society based on merit.
Before supporting either of the two scenarios, Afghan politicians and the country’s international supporters must stop and ponder the long-term consequences. The democratic process has eagerly been embraced by ordinary Afghans. Derailing it, ignoring the constitution and paying heed to threats of bullies and Machiavellian politicians would inevitably lead to a catastrophic disenchantment of the populace and a waste of the funds and lives that NATO nations have spent to help Afghanistan in the past 13 years.
As the anniversary of 9/11 tragedy approaches, the world must remember, though it lies physically far from New York, London or Berlin, Afghanistan and its journey towards democratisation is closely tied to world security.
Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.