What seemed like a normal democratic exercise, initiated almost a year ago, appears to have reached a critical juncture. The preliminary results of the presidential election in Afghanistan declared Ashraf Gani as the leading candidate in the run-off on July 7. Yet, the results were challenged by his rival Abdullah Abdullah, who alleged fraud. The situation reached a climax when Abdullah and his team gathered in the Grand Assembly Hall on July 8. Before Abdullah was in, his die-hard and emotionally charged supporters had already torn down incumbent President Hamid Karzai’s portrait and installed Abdullah’s instead. Abdullah condemned his rival team, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) as well as Karzai as being part of an unholy alliance and accused them of preventing his “victory”. He just stopped short of declaring a parallel government.
At this stage, all national state institutions had failed to take control of the situation and the crisis was intensifying by the day. It was here that one realised how fragile the Afghan state was. The journey of democracy that began almost 13 years ago had to be restarted from scratch. If it was not for the timely mediation of the US and the United Nations, the crisis would have pushed Afghanistan to the edge. If, on the one hand, the US and UN-negotiated deal brought some relief to desperate voters, it also revealed the inherent flaws in the democratic system and the rifts in Afghan society. The deal made the rival teams committed to a 100 per cent audit of ballots, a national unity government and the acceptance of election results by both factions.
US Secretary of State John Kerry had to come to Kabul twice to mediate between Gani and Abdullah. This was followed by a recent visit by the US assistant secretary of state as part of the mediation efforts to help move the challenging process ahead. The deal also includes creation of the post of chief executive officer through a presidential decree that will be given to the loser of the election. While it may seem like an anomaly in a democratic transfer of power, the formula of both the winner and loser forming a joint government is being tested in Afghanistan.
Ever since the deal was signed, several meetings have taken place between the rival teams to agree on the political framework. These include one-to-one meetings between Gani and Abdullah. Although agreements are said to have been made on several matters, some of the daunting issues must be addressed as both teams come up with their own interpretations of the negotiated agreement. While Abdullah and his team look at the deal as more of a power-sharing arrangement, Gani defines it in terms of national integration that brings together the two rival teams to work towards a common goal of nation-building through well-defined criteria of competence and inclusion.
The most controversial issue between the two candidates is the level of authority for the proposed CEO post. As if aware of his probable loss, Abdullah has been pressing for more powers for the chief executive in which he seems to be personally interested. He has also been asking for a 50 per cent share in government. The latest demand by Abdullah — to have the proposed CEO lead the cabinet — must be a test of nerves for Gani. In a presidential form of government, the president is both head of the government and head of the state. Agreeing to this demand will transform the entire character of Afghanistan’s governance structure, not to mention the fact that the move will be unconstitutional.
As per the latest reports from the IEC, 100 per cent recounting and audit of ballots have been completed and complaints are being investigated. Technically speaking, the electoral process has been completed and final results must be announced. Yet, unless an agreement is reached on the political framework of the new government, fears of an uprising by the Abdullah camp due to Gani’s almost certain victory have stopped the IEC from announcing the results so far. On September 8, Abdullah announced he would not accept the election results as his demands were not met by the rival team in a last-minute negotiating effort. There are also rumours of a military coup and an interim administration if the current impasse continues and eventually evolves into a crisis. However, such rumours seem baseless as they are neither technically nor politically feasible under the prevailing circumstances. Both Afghans and the international community want power to be transferred to an elected, legitimate government — one that will live up to the aspirations of the people and be committed to its international obligations.
History will not forgive the political leadership in Afghanistan if they continue to keep their personal ambitions above supreme national interests. The ball, surely, is in Abdullah and his team’s court.
Ajmal Shams is president of the Afghanistan Social Democratic Party, better known as Afghan Millat National Progressive Party, and is based in Kabul. He served as policy advisor to presidential candidate Ashraf Gani when he chaired the Security Transition Commission. He mainly writes on political and developmental issues.