Afghanistan is facing the dawn of a new day as the country’s first democratic and peaceful transfer of power is expected to take place in a few days. The changing of guard signifies the end of a mercurial era under Hamid Karzai’s watch; closure for a drawn-out and flawed presidential election that has produced a fragile, yet novel, partnership between two men (and their camps) to lead the country for the next five years and a rare opportunity to heal a bruised polity and concentrate on a myriad of challenges that the startup government will have to tackle out of the gates.
To avoid further tension over an inconclusive audit and recount, Ashraf Ghani was declared the president while Abdullah Abdullah agreed to become the chief executive with quasi prime ministerial powers, according to an intensely deliberated agreement that was partly facilitated by the international community.
The new structure moves the country one step away from the overly concentrated presidential system, as experienced under Karzai, towards what is hoped to be a functional and calibrated mini-devolution, enhancing the check-and-balance regime, and seen by some as better suited to Afghanistan’s current social and political conditions.
The truth about the inner workings of this election may or may never be revealed, but for now, harping on the arguments that there needed to be a clear winner and loser, or that democracy failed because results were withheld, sound a tad idealistic, as no other middle-of-the-road alternative was left to be considered after months of wrangling caused by allegations of fraud.
It is also noteworthy that the European Union observer team, made up of more than 400 professionals on the ground, clearly stated in a statement that the “audit procedures negotiated with both sides … have been at times inconsistently and hastily applied under high political tension. This has contributed to an imperfect effort to separate fraudulent votes from clean votes.”
Furthermore, a secret report concluded in July (after two rounds of balloting) that it was “mathematically impossible for Ghani to win, given Afghan demographics and the initial 46 percent to 32 percent first-round vote spread.”
Despite the pro and con arguments, the Afghan election commission, in a politically incorrect move, handed out a winner’s certificate to Ghani on September 26, a day after Abdullah graciously struck a conciliatory note, congratulated Ghani, and vowed to reform the electoral system.
For election closure to be complete, it is not helpful to wipe the systemic failures under the rug, or try to force legitimacy of a flawed outcome onto millions of citizens who believe it to be corrupt.
At the very least, to move on and adopt a healthier approach, all sides would need to agree that: 1-The process was deeply flawed; 2- high level manipulation took place by patronage networks and electoral bodies entrusted to manage the process; 3- no voter figures, imagined or fabricated, can credibly reflect reality; and 4- the country’s electoral system will need to undergo an overhaul.
With so much tension and suspicion in the air, the only alternative to seeking a practical solution was to propose a power-sharing arrangement between the two contenders, who between the two of them have garnered the overwhelming majority of clean Afghan votes, estimated at more than six million.
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As a result, a full-blown crisis that could have easily spiraled out of control was averted, and relative legitimacy was assured.
But to stress that a cobbled up coalition is impractical or even risky, will not help Afghans put the disruptive campaign behind them and focus on the work at hand at this critical juncture.
All sides have to give the new leadership at least six months to find its footing, develop synergy, overcome adversities, adopt new team-building measures and work in unison to govern in a more effective manner.
A major hurdle was overcome on September 25, when Abdullah made it known that he will personally occupy the chief executive’s position. The two sides are now working on filling up high-level slots on a 50-50 basis, hoping to have a functioning cabinet of ministers in place as soon as possible, possibly by inauguration time next week.
However, the real challenge is not only to find the most suitable, accountable and competent human capacities to fill the portfolios on the civilian and security sides, but also to identify priorities, strategise, set a work plan and execute as a team, all the while aiming at diminishing the weight of ethnic and factional prejudice.
The burden of proof rests on the shoulders of the two top leaders whose relationship will determine the quality and efficacy of governance. Since both men are ideologically not dissimilar in their worldview and are considered as moderate, it would be easier for them to see eye to eye on issues such as fighting radicalism, promoting social and economic development, private sector growth, stressing on democracy, rule of law and human rights, etc.
However, partnership has to be above-board, dynamic and based on trust. Any attempt by their patronage networks to undermine stability will backfire on the government and be a distraction, especially if it is fed through ethnic and political polarisation channels.
Putting the campaign and election imbroglio behind – to the extent possible – the two partners will now have to focus their attention on the challenges facing the country and fulfil their constituents’ heightened expectations per the pledges made during the campaign season.
More than anything else, Afghans expect good governance, accountability, social justice and security. But the new generation, occupying a growing demographic space, is also seeking to preserve the gains of the past 13 years under Karzai, especially in the field of education, access to new technologies and, more importantly, a burgeoning media.
However, many domains, from security to economic activity, have been negatively impacted by almost a year of heavy politicking. Among areas that need immediate attention:
- Defining a common security and geo-political strategy on how to combat and deal with the growing threat of militancy, including ISIL-type gambits. This policy will have to take into account relations with key regional and international actors.
- To assure continued and effective support to the Afghan security forces, the new government will very soon need to sign the bilateral security and status of forces agreements with the United States and NATO.
- Kick-start economic measure in the short and medium term to increase confidence levels and reboot private sector activity, increase consumer spending, tackle unemployment, and re-attract investment.
- The government will need to revamp donor relations to fill the fiscal gaps, especially in terms of operational costs and essential public sector spending.
As of next week, President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah will not have the luxury of time nor international largesse (as experienced by President Karzai since 2002) or public perseverance to deal with the country’s numerous challenges. Their honeymoon period will most probably be short-lived as they take on the responsibilities passed on to them.
But if they could nurture team-work and team-spirit, engage the Afghan public (as well as international allies), set clear standards for policy planning and implementation, break with failed practices and become respected role models, they can become each other’s best partners and navigate Afghanistan out of rough waters and onto calmer shores.
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.