Afghanistan: At risk of a two-headed government?

As both contenders for the presidency see the end of the electoral debacle approaching, they’ve draw

Both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are seen as rational and thoughtful individuals, writes Samad [EPA]

Is Afghanistan’s electoral deadlock pushing the country towards a deteriorating scenario or will a last-ditch effort by the two contenders – partly spurred on by internal and foreign pressures – arrive at a solution that is acceptable to all sides over the next few days?

As the clock of uncertainty ticks, the answer to this question lies more with the two candidates’ longer-term intentions, the level of influence exerted by their support systems, and eventually, with their definition of partnership within a unity government.

Both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah are seen as rational and thoughtful individuals, although with different temperaments and life experiences. They both have had years of involvement with governmental and non-governmental activities. Both men are products of a Kabul-based bureaucratic middle-class upbringing at a time when ethnicity was not a primary consideration.

Both Abdullah and Ghani were very much influenced by their post-adolescent environments: Abdullah, under a brutal communist takeover, and later as part of an Afghan-based Mujahideen structure; Ghani, initially flirting with left-wing ideas, and later as an advocate of globalisation and institution-building.

While Ghani spent most of his adult life in the United States, working as an academic and a World Bank anthropologist, Abdullah, an ophthalmologist by training, rose through the ranks of the anti-Soviet, and later anti-Taliban movements, mentored by Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary Afghan resistance leader. Abdullah dealt mostly with security, political and diplomatic affairs.

Inside Story – Holding democracy hostage in Afghanistan?

A deeper connection?

Obviously, Abdullah has a deeper connection with the internal events of the past 35 years, whereas Ghani came out of expatriate obscurity in the late 1990s when the Taliban ruled over most of Afghanistan. He joined the Karzai administration after playing a role as a United Nations adviser at the Bonn conference in 2001 that established the post-Taliban interim administration.

However, Afghans who have had close dealings with Ghani, point to his “grand plans” and ambition to lead Afghanistan, stretching back at least to the 1980s. Throughout the era of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, he remained mostly preoccupied with building his career.

Both men have expressed their commitment to democratic values and the rule of law, but the ongoing election dispute since the June run-off, is testing their resolve, level of patience and true convictions. It is also testing their ability to negotiate, reach a compromise, and grasp the criticality of partnership and inclusivity in the purest – not political – sense of the word.

The next few days, however, will test their mettle – maybe for the last time. If they cannot agree on a unity government, and any one side rejects the results of the controversial audit, a perilous season of blame games may kick off, leading to further instability and restlessness.

Concerted efforts are needed in earnest by domestic and international actors (to the extent that Afghans still trust them) to assure a win-win outcome and prevent further backsliding at a time when economic conditions are becoming dire.

To be effective, these efforts cannot be seen as one-sided, unrealistic, tactical or delegitimising the Afghan people’s votes. Announcing the vote count before a political arrangement has been reached, could also be counterproductive.

On September 10, Abdullah’s team said new data to be used in the ballot invalidation process was presented to the United Nations on evidence of massive fraud during the run-off .

As both contenders see the end of the process approaching, they have recently drawn new battle lines. Abdullah, who has accused the election commission of bias, presented another list of irregularities on Monday, claiming that they have either not been addressed or have been manipulated to benefit his rival. He also announced that the political talks are in gridlock, and he would decide on his future steps after wide-ranging consultations.

Minimal trust

This means that with minimal trust in the audit process, he has yet to see flexibility on the political front. His attempts at negotiating for a balanced and equal partnership to form a unity government have remained unheeded.

Ghani, who was almost 15 points behind Abdullah in the first round, saw a spectacular jump of more than 2 million votes (out of an estimated 8 million votes cast) in the run-off.

Abdullah vehemently contests the preliminary vote count numbers, claiming that results were tainted by vote rigging. He provided evidence that resulted in the resignation of a commissioner, and forced a 100 percent audit involving the United Nations.

While Ghani has shied away from criticising the commission that has been virtually hand-picked by Karzai, he told his supporters on September 10 that he will not engage in deal-making outside the Constitutional bounds. He added that a political accord to end the crisis should not result in a “two-headed” government.

In other words, he would want to exercise the same level of authority as the outgoing president, Hamid Karzai, disapproving of any sort of functional parity with Abdullah.

Ghani, who has travelled to the Gulf region on several occasions since the run-off to consult with some of his ardent supporters, is now attempting to force Abdullah’s hand. Such an outcome might kill the unity government concept, backed by the United States and the United Nations.

With a zero-sum resolution on the table, the only solution left at this stage is for an 11th hour effort to come up with a more acceptable power-sharing formula framed within a unity government.

Both sides have drawn their red lines, but left the door open for further talks in case alternative proposals may be offered.

One such option may involve agreeing on strategising and decision-making functions interlaced with executive powers, and supplement them with built-in check and balance and mediation mechanisms that do not pit one office against the other, and maintain functional equilibrium.

Specialised committees

This means that both portfolios – the president and chief executive’s – carry specific duties, at times interlocking on critical issues, such as national security policy. Furthermore, specialised committees of experts can help them with decision-making on domains such as the economy or social services, and a mediation group can step in when necessary. The president, as head of state and commander-in-chief, can preside over a smaller cabinet tasked with strategic decision-making, which would include heads of other government branches, while the chief executive acts as head of a consolidated council of ministers.

To assure continuity, the chief executive cannot be dismissed (unless accused of high treason) until a Loya Jirga is convened to consider an amendment to the Constitution in three years’ time.

Failing to seek a practical solution and stubbornly insisting on a winner-take-all scenario, is not only dangerous, but would prevent the “winner” of a fractured polity from unifying the country and governing effectively.

The sooner the two sides come to an understanding and commit themselves to what would look and perform more like a partnership than the status quo ante, the better the consequences at a time when public fatigue and uncertainty are reaching new highs.

Omar Samad is Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation, and served as Afghan Ambassador to France (2009-2011) and Canada (2004-2009). He is also president of Silkroad Consulting LLC.