It has become difficult to write about the Afghan elections, not because nothing happens, but because it rarely amounts to anything significant enough to move things on. There are talks between the candidates, press conferences with little news, an audit nearing completion, phone calls from the American president, rumours and unease. The optimism of the first round, now a distant six months ago, has leached away. Instead, three months after the second round and two months after the first visit by US Secretary of State, John Kerry, which secured an agreement between Doctors Abdullah and Ghani for a 100 per cent audit and a ‘national unity government,’ any resolution seems as far away as ever. AAN’s Kate Clark has been attempting to look at where the election is now and how it has changed since the heady days of April.Final days of the election: tying up the loose ends? Photo: Kate Clark
The first round, on 5 April, was the ‘good’ Afghan election. It was told as an upbeat narrative, with high turn out and smiles, as a stand for democracy and against the insurgency. Even though a news black-out on Taleban violence and lack of a proper audit for fraud meant we never knew exactly how the first round had gone, still, it created genuine hope for the future. Moreover, the general trends were clear.
Most votes had gone to Doctors Abdullah and Ghani, with far fewer going to the incumbent’s apparent choice, Zalmai Rassul. Ghani came out far ahead of all other contenders seen as ‘Pashtun candidates’. (Dr Abdullah, of course, is also Pashtun on his father’s side, but is more usually associated with the Tajiks of the Panjshir Valley). The vote looked to be, not just an endorsement of the state and the current political system (as opposed to the Taleban’s offer), but also a vote for change and some new blood in the government. The Taleban were discomforted. The strong vote made some of us wonder if this might even be the time when the Taleban would recognise finally the need to stop fighting, especially given the face-saving opportunity of the departure of foreign forces and President Karzai opening the chance to deal with a new government. There were hopes that the leader who emerged from the election would have a strong enough mandate to actually be able to tackle the grave military and economic problems facing the country.
The narrative of the second round, however, was contested from the start. From election day on 14 June onwards, Dr Abdullah has repeated his belief that he suffered massive fraud at the hands of Ashraf Ghani, the Independent Election Commission and the state (what his camp calls the ‘triangle of fraud’), and that victory was stolen from him. Ghani has held that, after recognising the significant flaws in his campaign during the first round (see for example here and here), he led a successful campaign which mobilised a genuine surge in support, a massive turnout and victory. His team believes Abdullah and his supporters have been trying to bully their way into power after losing the democratic vote. Abdullah’s team, meanwhile, is scathing of what they say was Ghani’s co-option of state institutions to steal his way into power. One thing is clear: a marked ethnic polarisation in the second round vote, particularly of the two largest communities who both tended to vote for the man they perceived as their own: Pashtuns for Ghani and Tajiks for Abdullah. In subsequent arguments over the poll, supporters of both sides, especially on social media, frequently resorted to ethnic-based vitriol.
September and an election-weary population
It is now three months since the second round and the mood has only become bleaker. Afghans appear weary and disheartened by the whole process. Electoral uncertainty has leached into the economy and security situation. There has been a bloody summer of fighting (see for example here or here). That might have been the case regardless of what happened at the polls – and yet having a politically-weakened state can not have helped the morale of Afghan security forces and it has allowed the Taleban to laugh at democracy (1). Higher gas and flour prices, a crisis in the public budget, unemployment, capital flight and falling investment have all been linked to uncertainty over the political future of the country. It has undoubtedly contributed to Afghanistan’s economic woes, exacerbating other, often structural, problems, including shrinking allotments of international aid, mismanagement of the government budget, the military transition and, on gas prices, for example, the oligopoly of supply and possible speculation.
One bright spot was the NATO summit which came and went, (2) with support promised to the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) even without a resolution of the political crisis, so long as the new president signs the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States, and a Status of Forces Agreement with NATO (SOFA) (for details on the legal implications of such agreements, see here). It is painful to imagine the situation if international support, in particular the money to pay soldiers and police, had not been forthcoming, given that the insurgency shows no signs of dying down.
Further afield, other forces are changing the wider environment, in as yet unclear ways – first among them, the rapid rise Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq and with it an exacerbation of Sunni-Shia tensions in the Middle East and the prospect of the US military returning to that region. The rise of Islamic State has the potential to take attention away from Afghanistan, but, so far, at least, has made having a ‘success story’ here politically important for Washington. It may be one reason for America’s heavy political investment in trying to sort out the deadlock in Afghanistan. Then there is the impact the estranged ‘sons of al-Qaida’ could have on the Afghan insurgency; its success might embolden the Taleban to fight on, trying to emulate the successful ambush on the Iraqi and Syrian armies around Mossul, Tikrit and Raqqa with a similar move against the post-withdrawal ANSF. Other possible scenarios would be an emboldening of international-jihadist, mainly Salafi, trends within the Afghan insurgency or, in a counter-reaction to that, even a push toward reconciliation.
The same deadlock
Yet, despite all of these pressures making a political settlement of the election-related deadlock in Afghanistan both necessary and urgent, we are at a political standstill and the many and various attempts to resolve the differences between the two candidates have brought them no closer together. The basic outline of the conflict between the two camps remains essentially the same as it was after the second round and before the first Kerry visit (11-12 July). His solution then was to broker an agreement between the two candidates to hold a full audit and be bound by its results and form a national unity government. That agreement was intended to clear up who had won the election, while recognising that the losing side had also to be brought on board. Depending on one’s point of view, this was either crucial, given how ethnicity had driven much of the voting, or an abandonment of any hope of an election-based, democratic transition.
Despite the two candidates ‘renewing their vows’ during the second Kerry visit just over a month ago (3), Abdullah decided, in the last days of the 100 per cent audit, to withdraw his agents from the IEC, (as he had done from the count in June and early July) saying he had no faith in the capacity of the audit to uncover what he still alleges was ‘industrial-scale’ rigging of the second round. The complaints put forward by his chief technical official, Fazl Ahmad Manawi on 26 August were, however, largely rebutted by UNAMA in a detailed statement and the audit went on. Then, on 8 September, Abdullah said the political negotiations over forming a unity government had reached a deadlock – although he did not formally withdraw from the talks.
Ghani, meanwhile, says, (as he did in June and early July of the count), that he will abide by the outcome of the audit. In a press conference on 10 September (attended by AAN and also reported here, he said he had acceded to Abdullah’s demands for the audit, for the UN’s involvement and the presence of international observers. Both teams, he said, had agreed to abide by the result of the audit. The constitution features in his justification for why no political agreement has been reached on a national unity government. The sticking point, he said, was the powers of a position to be newly created, ‘chief executive official’ or CEO, a term more normally used on Wall Street to describe the person who oversees day-to-day running of a company, but who is outranked by the company’s president.
Abdullah has demanded that the CEO should have executive powers over cabinet ministers and chair cabinet meetings, while Ghani has said this would be unconstitutional and therefore is not in his power to offer (should he be declared the winner). In his view, the CEO could chair cabinet sub-committees and the cabinet coordinating committee, but a loya jirga would be needed to make any more substantive changes, and that is planned for two years into his presidency. (Interesting analysis of the constitutionality of the CEO position and any executive powers can be found here).
Looking back at how both teams described the national unity government after Kerry’s first visit, one can see that these positions are unchanged. Ghani says he believes in a government of national unity on principle and would mean the best team to be assembled (ie not just from his supporters). He already speaks like a future president, despite his caveats of “should I be declared winner.” Abdullah’s team, for all their assertions of victory, appears intent on securing a deal where the loser gets as much as possible, a government were posts are shared and where they are not left hostage to the president’s good will. It seems Ghani is not content to give Abdullah what he feels he deserves – hence the impasse.
What has changed since early July is that many of the potential solutions have now been used up. An audit of the vote has taken place. The UN has been heavily involved in it – helping the two teams and the IEC draw up criteria for checking and invalidation, and adjudicating, either as a last resort or, in the case of the ‘special audit’, as sole arbiter. Hundreds of international observers (matching the army of national observers) have sat for weeks watching the whole process. It has not convinced those who believe fraud was high. The involvement of the UN – even though requested by Dr Abdullah – may have come at a cost. Demonstrations (albeit relatively small) on 12 September turned against the UN, accusing it of helping to rig votes. The UN said “threats”, “abuse” and “intimidation and verbal attacks” were not acceptable and would have consequences for the UN’s aid work if they did not stop. The US has thrown its biggest guns at the problem – Kerry and Obama – without success yet in getting a deal. One wonders how much political capital it has left, especially if what one of Abdullah’s spokespeople, Sayed Ahmad Sangcharaki, said is true, that Obama spoke to Abdullah on the night of 7 September for 40 minutes, stressing the necessity of a unity government and that the two candidates should meet again. “Several times,” said Sangcharaki, “he used the word ‘please’.” [khahesh mekonum] In Dari, it carries a pleading tone.
What happens next?
At his 11 September press conference, Ghani pressed for the audited results to be declared soon. He said he has not closed the door to political negotiations with Abdullah and it would be best if they reached an agreement before the results were declared, although it could still come later, before the swearing-in of the new president, or before he formed his new government (a 45-day task, he estimated).
Abdullah’s supporters have not renewed the threats they made after the announcement of the preliminary results to form a ‘parallel government.’ However, governor of Balkh Ata Muhammad Nur has said their team would not accept anything short of power based on their “popular mandate” and that if this demand was not heeded, they would “take to the streets, invade governmental offices and occupy them in order to break the foundations of government”. In early July, before the first Kerry visit, pro-Abdullah, ‘anti-fraud’ demonstrations were peaceful. However, there was reporting by The New York Times that the visit had pre-empted a coup attempt. Not surprisingly, minds have again turned to what Abdullah and his supporters could do if the result is announced and they feel they have not got the deal they deserve: how much is bluff and how much real threat?
Others in the Abdullah camp have started to put forward alternative ‘anything but Ghani’ scenarios, in particular, an interim government. Reporting in mid-August on the possibility of such a government led to the expulsion of New York Times reporter, Matt Rosenberg. However, it has now been raised publically by one of Abdullah’s running mates, Muhammad Mohaqeq, who said that unless power was divided equally in the national unity government, with the prime mister heading the cabinet, there should be either immediate fresh elections, an interim government or the current government should continue in post ahead of elections in two years’ time. Karzai has adamantly (and, it appears, genuinely) repeated that he does not want to stay on in office. Moreover, interim governments and fresh elections would be just another proposal aimed at warding off crisis, without actually solving anything. Electoral and other institutions would require reform, particularly when it comes to impartiality and transparency, before they would be able to produce an election result acceptable for all major actors. One can imagine more wrangling while the economy and security situation deteriorated. In any case, given the country’s present mood, it is difficult to imagine the Afghan people accepting another election.
It seems the IEC was asked to delay announcing the results to give more space for the political negotiations. The final in/validations have been released very slowly, in dribs and drabs, but now the IEC has said the technical process will be completed today (14 September), although an announcement of results might still take a few days. All estimations are that Ghani has secured a majority. Although Abdullah would say this was fraudulent, the UN, at least, has already thrown the heavy-weight endorsement of the secretary general behind the audit. Ban Ki-moon described it, on 11 September, as “robust, comprehensive and consistent with international best practices”). In a UNAMA press release, he was quoted as saying:
… the two candidates agreed to accept the result of a comprehensive nationwide audit of the presidential election run-off results and form a government of national unity. With the main audit completed on 4 September and the announcement of updated results anticipated shortly, the announcement of updated results anticipated shortly, the Secretary-General expects that the candidates will now abide by their commitments to enable Afghanistan’s first ever peaceful transfer of power.
A deal could still come quickly and with smiles. The alternative, however, would seem to be an announcement of the audited results – and then waiting to see how Dr Abdullah and his team respond.
(1) A couple of examples of this from the Taleban website:
The election has been a drama imposed and engineered by outsiders. It was partially aimed at stirring ethnic divisions among the people. The Kabul government held an imaginary election, but the two sides engaged bitterly with each other. They are humiliating and abusing each other in the public, exactly like children. One side says the participation was not massive and the people did not take part very much, and boxes were filled by Independent Election Commission. The other side says security institutions favoured and stole votes for the other side. Indeed, both are truthful in these their very words.
An election that is controversial, a sham and unacceptable to Abdullah!
The western-modelled buzkashi under the name of ‘election’ is now arriving at a stage where the so-called international democratic legitimacy is trodden on [insultingly breached] and ruffian candidates such as Abdullah deny accepting the results. Abdullah has such notorious warlords beside him like Gul Agha Sherzai who joined him in the second phase of the game. Abdullah’s denial comes after his American masters failed to support him and instead supported the head of a coalition of gilim jams [an insulting reference to Uzbek militias, ie Jombesh, those who literally roll up even the carpet when they loot) and Shia bands.
(2) The urgency of getting a new president in place to attend the NATO summit was one of the factors driving the need for audit and political deal. Kerry’s second visit (7-8 August) was surely prompted to hurry the faltering audit process along, with this in mind. See, for example, this from Dr Abdullah at the three-man press conference at the end of the visit:
On the date: – 31st of August – we are committed to work with cooperative experts to achieve that goal and to make sure that we are there by the end of August, [and that] the audit process is completed, without sacrificing the credibility and legitimacy of the audit process, because that’s the goal. But the goal – the time is also very important because of our international commitments, and also more important because of the Afghan people’s expectation.
(3) Kerry appeared to go a long way towards reassuring the Abdullah camp during this visit, saying: “So let me be clear – this audit is not about winning and losing. It’s about achieving the credible result that the people of Afghanistan demand and deserve.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020