Within a span of two months, there has been an unfortunate turn around to the electoral and thereby the larger democratic process in Afghanistan. After a successful first round of elections in April 2014, the second round took place during the last month to elect either Abdullah Abdullah or Ashraf Ghani. What should have been a simple and straight forward election between two candidates has today become a highly divisive one, threatening the positive achievements in the recent years towards establishing Afghanistan as a democracy.
Trouble started much before the counting process began. Abdullah Abdullah complained about fraud in the second round of election, with ballot boxes being stuffed in more than 2000 polling booths. What was surprising also was the number of votes polled in the second round of elections, when compared with the first round.
While the first round witnessed polling of six million votes, the initial count after elections projected seven million, while the final number after counting rose to eight million. The independent Election Commission has announced that Ashraf Ghani scoring more than 54 percent of the votes polled, while Abdullah Abdullah securing less than 45 percent.
Abdullah group consider this as a huge fraud and believe that the two million votes should be bogus and stuffed to ensure Ashraf Ghani wins the process. His supporters also provide as proof telephonic conversations of the election commission officials on the issue of fraud and attempting to steal the election in favour of Ashraf Ghani.
With the other two candidates – Zalmai Rassoul and Abdul Sayyaf who have secured 11 and 7 percent of votes during the previous round, supporting Abdullah Abdullah, the latter was expecting his vote share would increase from 45 percent in the previous round to more than 50 percent during the second round. However, Ashraf Ghani who had scored less that Abdullah in the first round was declared securing more than 50 percent, which the Abdullah group has refused to accept.
Having gone through the same process earlier while fighting Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah do not want to lose one more time due to fraud and is unlikely to wait till the next Presidential elections. His supporters are vociferous and are pressurizing Abdullah to form a government immediately on his own. His group wants to go to the Presidential palace and occupy it, thereby forming the government. Abdullah does have support amongst few Governors in the provinces and also amongst a section within the Afghan security forces. His threat is doable from his side.
It would have been a disaster had he carried out the threat. Thankfully, he allowed Kerry to mediate in finding a solution. After a marathon of meetings between Abdullah and Ghani, Kerry did succeed in establishing a deal; both had agreed to an audit again, thereby counting the votes.
How did the electoral process, after the initial success come to this stage? Was there really turn around between the two rounds, which made Ashraf Ghani take a decisive lead in a period of two months? Or, was there something sinister behind the entire disaster.
A section does accuse Hamid Karzai, the President now for playing a dirty role in favouring Ashraf Ghani. The latter being a pashtun is a factor cited as Karzai’s decision to steal the election against Abdullah Abdullah. When compared to Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah Abdullah is not seen as an outside; he has remained within Afghanistan, fought the Soviet troops earlier as a part of the Mujahideen resistance, and latter the Taliban. He continued to support the political process after Karzai was made the President during the last decade. Ashraf Ghani is seen as an outside and technocrat, who was imported from the West. So Abdullah group does have a point.
Second, there is also a conspiracy theory accusing Karzai as the primary villain trying deliberately to create political instability. If there is a political standoff between the two candidates, he is likely to remain the President for a longer term; or, given his support to Ashraf Ghani, the later would return the favour and accommodate Karzai in one way or another. This section also claims, without such a long term plan for himself, he would not have attempted to build such a huge palace in Kabul after passing over the baton to the next President.
The US was alarmed with such a situation for three reasons. First, Karzai continuing as the President in the event of political instability mean that the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) would not be signed between Afghanistan and the US. The other two candidates have agreed to sign, if they get elected. Second, the US is also equally worried about any political instability at this juncture, with the American forces preparing their exit plan.
The most important worry for the US is any repeat of Iraq situation. A section within the US has already started writing that today’s Iraq is tomorrow’s Afghanistan, hinting that what is happening within Iraq would happen to Afghanistan. An unstable government, non-inclusive politics, pull-out of foreign troops and radical onslaught – the recipe for disaster today in Iraq would very well become the ingredients of failure in Afghanistan tomorrow.
The US at this juncture does not want one more unstable country in this region. If there is instability in Kabul, the political process would remain paralysed. Attracting foreign investment, which is crucial to the stability and the very survival of Afghanistan, would then become a tougher issue.
More than the political paralysis and economic failure, Afghanistan is likely to become politically polarised along pashtun and non-pashtun lines, if the above happens. This will also puncture the Afghan dream that the youth in particular believes in terms of establishing an Afghan nation based on a larger identity cutting across narrow ethnic and tribal identities. The political instability would let the Afghan youth down and hit them hard, than any other sections of the society.
So, who will benefit out of the above developments? Obviously, without firing a single bullet and planning an ambush, Taliban would gain considerably and in fact would cover the lost ground in no time. Taliban, though weakened when compared to the last decade, still have enough fire power to wreck the process, especially in a politically unstable situation. Taliban would bounce back, not because of inherent strength, but because of the failure of mainstream political process and political consensus.
For the rest of the region, any Taliban ingress in Afghanistan now leading towards an establishment of any form of government, even over a limited territory would imply two fanatic regimes in Iraq in the west and in Afghanistan in the east, forming a radical corridor. Such a development would neither be in the interest of Afghanistan, or in the rest of Asia. West Asia, South Asia, Central Asia and even parts of Western China (especially Xinjiang) would face the reverberations of such a development.
It is imperative that the two Presidential candidates in Afghanistan get back to the political process and ensure that the audit takes place, thus increasing the credibility of the electoral process and infusing faith in the political path.