South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Asian Age, July 10th.

Instead of stabilising the country, Afghanistan’s presidential election can destabilise it further. While acknowledging electoral fraud, the chairman of the Independent Election Commission, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, has gone ahead and announced the preliminary results of the presidential runoff.

Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai — a Pushtun who worked for the World Bank earlier — was declared to be leading with 56 per cent of the votes polled. His rival, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, it was announced, had received only 43 per cent votes. Dr Abdullah, who was in the lead with 45 per cent of the popular vote in the first round, has alleged “industrial level” rigging and is refusing to accept the results.

Dr Abdullah believes that he was cheated of the presidency by rigging in the 2009 election by the Karzai administration and that he is being cheated once again. He has produced audio tapes of alleged conversations between Mr Ghani’s aides and a top election official, Zia-ul-Haq Amerkhel, instructing police officials to rig the polling and replace officials who support the “other side”.

Mr Amerkhel claimed innocence but resigned nonetheless. Dr Abdullah also questioned the abnormally high rate of polling in some provinces where the turnout was abysmally low in the first round, alleging multiple voting by individuals as well as ballot stuffing by election officials and the police. He claims that nearly two million votes of Mr Ghani are fraudulent.

According to Mr Nuristani, eight million voters have voted in the final runoff out of a total electorate of 13 million. This is an increase of about 1.5 million voters over the first round. In response to allegations of fraud, the Election Commission will re-count votes from about 7,000 polling centres under United Nations’ supervision. However, this is unlikely to cover the 13 per cent, or one million vote lead that Mr Ghani has over Dr Abdullah.

The first vice-president of Afghanistan, Yunus Qanooni, a Tajik and a former comrade of Dr Abdullah, who was negotiating with the two presidential candidates on behalf of the outgoing President Hamid Karzai, has declared the preliminary results illegal and their announcement, a conspiracy. He is backing Dr Abdullah to form the new government.

There have been rumours that Dr Abdullah may announce a parallel government headed by him in the country’s Northern provinces where non-Pushtun Afghans are in a majority. US secretary of state John Kerry has, however, warned that any action to take power by extra-legal means will cost Afghanistan financial and security support of the United States. Perhaps Dr Abdullah has himself realised that there may be little domestic support for the move — his public protests have not seen a heavy turnout — and he is not pushing the threat with conviction.

The choices before Dr Abdullah are limited. If he continues with the electoral process, he will end up legitimising Mr Ghani’s win. The 13 per cent gap cannot be bridged and the administration, which perpetrated the fraud, is not going to declare the election illegal. He also cannot leave the process now as he accepted the results of the first round when he was winning, despite allegations of fraud even then. If he reaches a compromise with Mr Ghani now — he was offered power-sharing after a change in the Constitution as Prime Minister before the preliminary results were declared which he refused — he will be on a weak wicket and his supporters might desert him.

The election to anoint his successor has created just the kind of political confusion that suits Mr Karzai, the wily outgoing President of Afghanistan. With a Pushtun in the lead, Mr Karzai cannot be accused of handing over power to a non-Pushtun. This goes down well with his Pushtun constituency and the traditionalists who tend to believe that a Pushtun alone can rule from Kabul and control Afghanistan. Yet, a weak Mr Ghani in office, with his legitimacy questioned by non-Pushtuns, may have to lean on the experience and support of an elder Pushtun leader like Mr Karzai. If, however, Mr Karzai is able to negotiate a compromise between Mr Ghani and Dr Abdullah — as he is apparently trying — he can still claim the halo of a statesman who while demitting office did not leave his country divided. In case, there is no compromise and Mr Ghani is also unable to assume power, then the turmoil may open yet another opportunity for Mr Karzai. He may try and head an interim administration till a new election is held. A compromise interim government led by Mr Karzai, however, may not be acceptable to the US. It is quite possible, therefore, that a compromise candidate acceptable to both contenders could then be asked to head it. However, the Afghan Constitution is not very clear on such an arrangement and perhaps a Loya Jirga might have to be called to evolve a process. It is also not clear whether an interim President can enter into the Bilateral Security Agreement due to be signed with the US.

Meanwhile, the US and its allies are eager to cut and run from Afghanistan. Their interest at the penultimate moment of their departure is to somehow proclaim Afghanistan’s transition to full sovereignty after 13 years of military intervention. For this, it is important that they claim that the presidential election process is complete by the end of July and install a new President in Kabul on August 2 when Mr Karzai’s term ends. The rigging allegations can be left to the new administration.

The Afghans themselves may not want this situation to linger on as the international stakeholders withdraw. That the Afghan Taliban are also taking advantage of the internal turmoil is evident from the attacks they have launched in Helmand and in Parwan. At the same time, the Zarb-e-Azb operation of the Pakistan Army in North Waziristan against the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan is already pushing Punjabi, Uzbek and Chechen Islamic militants to set up bases in Afghanistan. It seems, therefore, that there will be no early end to Afghanistan’s woes.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi