The South Asia Channel

Let Afghan Voters Finish the Job

Kabul has been full of rumors about an attempt to reach a "political deal" in order to avoid a second round of voting required by the constitution. Strangely, most of the commentary in the western press has treated such a deal as if it would be desirable. We believe it would be a huge mistake.

According to the preliminary complete results released by the election commission, no candidate reached the 50 percent required for the first round to be decisive. The final results, following adjudication of complaints, are not likely to change significantly. A run-off will need to take place between Abdullah Abdullah, the first place candidate with 44.9 percent of the votes, and the clear second-place candidate, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai with 31.5 percent.

Despite some complaints of fraud and irregularities, the election has gone remarkably well so far. It is therefore curious that there are increasing reports of an attempt behind the scenes to negotiate a "coalition government" to avoid the second round required by the constitution. This would be a huge setback for democracy in Afghanistan and likely a costly mistake.

The April 5 and pre-election campaigning by candidates did everything an election is supposed to do. It mobilized voters. It re-legitimized the constitutional order. The high turnout was a resounding statement of support for democracy, a rejection of the Taliban, and a declaration of confidence in the Afghan National Security Forces.

The desire for a deal is partly motivated by legitimate concerns about a second round. The Taliban, seen to have been humiliated by their inability to undermine the first round, will likely seek to demonstrate their political relevance and capacity for violence. Voter turnout may be lower as fears of violence take hold and the enthusiasm of the first round wears off. Voting patterns in the second round may be more clearly along ethnic and regional lines, undermining the sense of national unity presented by the cross-ethnic voting in the first round. Finally, the incidence of fraud may be higher since the stakes are as well.

These risks are, however, not sufficient reasons to engineer a political deal to pre-empt a second round. The same hazards were present before the first round and most of them failed to materialize. The much larger risk is that a political deal to avoid a second round will most likely provide short-term relief and long-term pain. It is possible that the second round will partially negate the good news from the first round, but a political deal would essentially invalidate the votes cast in the first round. This would be a more serious blow to the development and entrenchment of Afghan democracy than the seriously flawed elections in 2009. Not only would it rob the government that emerged of any legitimacy, it would also reinforce the Taliban argument that had been denied to them by seven million voters:That Afghanistan's democratic constitution cannot work. Finally, it would severely weaken the basis of accommodation that has held Afghan elites together, namely the constitution.

One of the key reasons that it was so important to hold the first round on time and according to the constitution was to preserve the constitutional order and legitimacy of the government through non-violent means. The constitution represents the "rules of the game" by which Afghan political elites have agreed to play. One of the unrecognized successes of the past 13 years is that the constitution has managed to hold together a group of powerful political figures.

In the past -- whether or not Afghan elites fully embraced democracy, with its accompanying ideals of civic rights, popular participation in government, and accountability-- they had at least embraced the process of elections as a means of establishing the respective clout of major political players. This determination could be used in negotiations among themselves over how to distribute government positions. In other words, they had accepted "electoralism," if not democracy.

The first round yielded a far more positive result, however. The extent of voter turnout showed that, whatever political elites believed, Afghans were eager to exercise their civic rights. Voting patterns relied less on ethnicity than was previously assumed, with candidates winning votes in areas of the country where their own ethnicity was not dominant. The electoral institutions performed far better than in previous elections, and the state apparatus led by Hamid Karzai did not intervene in any meaningful way. Not only was the constitutional order preserved, it was roundly endorsed.

This is why it would be folly to interrupt a successful constitutional process with a political deal. Both leading candidates have stated that they wanted to contest a second round if called for by the results of the first round. For the sake of their own reputations (and the government that one of them will lead) they must both stick to this position.

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan is prepared to conduct the runoff, but the international community has a role to play as well. In the months leading up to the first round, they correctly avoided any involvement in the politics of the election, focusing on the process. They made clear that a future relationship with Afghanistan depended on holding credible, on-time elections. Afghanistan, largely due to Afghan voters, delivered on this. Now the international community and Afghan elites must honor its side of the bargain by letting the election reach its natural conclusion, which requires the fulfillment of the constitutional process. Public statements about the challenges of holding a second round are understandable, but these should not be read as supporting a deal.

Both leading candidates would like to have an inclusive government and better international relationships with the West, especially the United States. Their credibility with domestic political actors and international donors will be enhanced by a legitimate election. Afghans faced risks in the first round and delivered a stunning endorsement of democracy. It would be wrong to deprive them of their democratic opportunity now.

Shahmahmood Miakhel is the Country Director for Afghanistan with the United States Institute of Peace; Scott Smith is the Director for Afghanistan and Pakistan Programs for the United States Institute of Peace.

 

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