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Afghan presidential election result: signs of crisis?

June 19, 2014

Summary: accusations of fraud between the two run-off presidential candidates hold up the real possibility of damaging a crucial peaceful transition of power

abdullah and ghaniAfter no candidate secured a sufficient majority (more than 50%) in the first round in April, the second round of the Afghan presidential election went ahead on 14th June. Like the first round, despite violence and killings from the Taliban, the second round seemingly went off without major security problems. The run-off is between Dr Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik close to the Northern Alliance and a former Foreign Minister and Ashraf Ghani, a Pushtun technocrat and former Finance Minister. In the first round, Dr Abdullah won 45% of the vote and Ashraf Ghani won 32%.

The votes are still being counted, with results due in July, but both sides have been accusing the other of widespread fraud, particularly ballot stuffing. This is inevitable, to some degree, given the widespread frailty of the still fledgling Afghan electoral process and the corruption, fraud and violence that surrounds the ballot.

But the language is getting quite intense.

Allegations seems to focus on ballot stuffing and unusually high levels of turnout in particular districts.  The Abdullah camp sees a Karzai hand in rigging in favour of a fellow Pushtun:

Less than 48 hours after a runoff election to choose the next president of Afghanistan, the first signs of a looming political crisis emerged on Monday, with the campaign of Abdullah Abdullah claiming there had been widespread ballot stuffing and suggesting he was being set up for a defeat he would not accept.

 

Abdullah said preliminary figures and other evidence collected by his team showed mass fraud had undermined the process and he would no longer work with the organisers.

“The counting process should stop immediately and if that continues, it will have no legitimacy,” he told reporters. “From now on, today, we announce that we have no confidence or trust in the election bodies.”

Ashraf Ghani seems to be less strident. Yesterday he tweeted:

Ashraf Ghani ‏@ashrafghani 17h: We’ll wait until the Independent Election Commission announces final result. V won’t predict the result or create confusions amongst people.

Comment

Seen from an internationalist perspective it probably doesn’t matter too much whether Abdullah or Ghani is elected. Both look broadly acceptable – no major war crimes or corruption allegations chasing them, both intelligent, urbane and pro-West. Both have experience in government and have vital skills for the multi-decade task of rebuilding the country.  But, after thirteen years of a Pushtun President there is a sense amongst the other main ethnic groups – Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazaras – that it is now the turn of a non-Pushtun. For Abdullah Abdullah personally, having, by many accounts, narrowly missed the presidency in 2009, amidst even greater fraud, he should not be denied what he unfairly missed last time.  During the elections in 2009 there was talk of civil war because of the level of fraud and disputes between the Karzai and Abdullah teams.  Many felt Karzai and his supporters had rigged the result against Abdullah, who, like now, had performed well in the vote. Abdullah demonstrated maturity and statesmanship by stepping back and refusing to give in to the temptation to turn to mass demonstrations and protest – with the high likelihood of violence.

Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory

I am not sure if this is a “looming political crisis”.  But we should not take it for granted as merely a last flurry from candidates from whom so much is at stake.  As Ghani rightly states and as Abdullah likely recognises, the electoral process needs to be seen to run its course and all allegations must be investigated. We should hope for a result that clearly indicates one winner and one loser: a closely-placed result – say with a difference of 1 – 3 percentage points – leaves open a real likelihood that the protagonists can claim they have been cheated and refuse to accept the results.

Now is not the time for wobbles and tantrums and a quick and peaceful transition is crucial.  Although Abdullah might be reasonably sensible and aware of the risks of his accusations, other supporters might be less easily controllable and placated.  The country can survive some political tantrums and Abdullah can perhaps be forgiven for being highly sensitive.  But turning it (or having it turn) into a wider, deeper and more damaging Tajik vs Pushtun spat would be very unconstructive.  Most of the presidential candidates in the first round were Pushtun and so we might genuinely be seeing a re-coalescing of the Pushtun vote where it was previous scattered amongst many.  The country is on the brink of a vital peaceful transition of power and has held two elections in the space of three months that the Taliban have been unable to prevent.  Rumour and accusation make it all too easy – and a genuine disaster for the country – for this to be thrown away and the country’s governance were plunged into stagnation, chaos, fragmentation or conflict. The country cannot afford a protracted transition – or worse.

One of my favourite themes is the risk that political and military forces other than the Taliban can fragment the country while all attention is on the insurgency.  Doing the Taliban’s work for them at this stage would be foolish.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 25, 2014 10:19 am

    Chatham House warned of this back in April http://wp.me/p4kQgl-1k (the consequences should the election be tainted by accusations of electoral fraud). Those Afghans who literally risked their lives queuing for hours to cast their vote need to feel such risk was worth it. Lets hope this situation finds a resolution.

  2. June 25, 2014 10:21 am

    p.s. great piece by the way. With current events in Iraq it’s easy to lose sight of what’s happening in Afghanistan so good to be reminded that the process of stabilising the country hasn’t finished.

  3. July 7, 2014 12:44 pm

    Thanks Heather, apologies for not replying sooner – even us thrusting independent political/military analysts need a holiday sometime! Out of interest, I was just in London and hooked up with former colleagues with interest in this area. They were still pretty unsure which way this was going to go. The most recent snippets I’ve looked at suggest that even some form of power-sharing “deal” between the two might be a possibility.

    I’ve always felt that, from a broader perspective, Afghanistan needs at least five presidential electoral cycles before we can really judge “progress”.

    Lets keep an eye on it – and separately, I would be interested to know what the Taliban make of the ISIS “surge”. Cause for encouragement from their perspective?

    Cheers

    Tim

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