After the first round of voting in the presidential race in Afghanistan, where over 7 million Afghans went to the polls on April 5, 2014, a handful of political pundits and interest groups urged the two leading candidates, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, to make a deal to avoid a second round scheduled for June 14. President Karzai played an active role in brokering between the candidates and the political elite. A range of arguments were put forth on behalf of such a deal: the second round would see insecurity, fraud, impartiality of government machinery, the specter of ethnic polarization, a high cost, and possibly a low turnout.
Travelling the country in the run up to the first round, however, I saw a populace that was enthusiastic about going to the polls, increasingly invested in the electoral process, and interested in moving beyond the status quo of back room dealing that has come to characterize the Karzai government and Afghan politics more generally.
To their credit, and perhaps because they understood the mood of voters, both Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani refused to enter into any deals to avoid a second round. My colleague, Scott Smith, and I agreed with this standpoint: the long-term consequences of scrapping a second round were much greater than the immediate risks inherent in another round of polling.
With just days to go before the June 14 second round Election Day, the enthusiasm of voters has only grown. This is evident by the mass rallies that both candidates have held in all corners of the country over the past two weeks. Both candidates have built up ethnically diverse alliances and have teams of committed volunteers working around the clock to reach an electorate that seems even more willing to defy security threats and vote than they were in April. If Afghans are divided in their choice of candidates, they seem more fundamentally united in the belief that the second round is necessary.
The first round wasn't perfect and the second won't be either. For the process to be seen as successful, and for the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan's history to occur, three basic challenges must be overcome in the weeks, and perhaps months, ahead.
The first challenge is security. This is not simply a matter of Taliban-related violence. Anecdotal evidence from all five of Afghanistan's national elections suggests that much violence or intimidation attributed to insurgents is actually committed by armed militias, warlords, or government strongmen seeking to influence the outcome. The same is likely to be true for the June 14 elections, with actual Taliban actions of lesser concern than strongmen with vested interests. Afghan National Security Forces proved capable and impartial during the first round, and my conversations with senior MOI (Ministry of Interior) officials suggest that they intend to accomplish the same for the second round, but that the biggest threat will be pressure on them to act at the behest of individuals supporting one candidate or the other.
The second challenge is fraud. As we have learned, fraud and security work in tandem: insecure areas are more prone to fraud. So called ghost polling stations that are declared open on election day but are inaccessible to independent electoral monitors and candidate agents are of serious concern. With no incumbent on the ballot and divisions running through both the sitting cabinet and the parliament, the Afghan government (and the machinery it could use to influence voting) is divided between the two runoff candidates. This split may also mitigate the government's ability to meddle in the work of the IEC (Independent Election Commission) or IECC (Independent Election Complaint Commission) during the vote tallying and dispute adjudication phases. In the first round, the fraud that was committed was spread among candidates, reducing its impact on the result.
The third challenge, which is directly linked to the issue of fraud, is the acceptance of the preliminary and final vote counts by the two candidates and their respective constituencies, particularly if results are close. It is the responsibility of candidates and political elites to prepare their supporters to accept the results and trust the process. The IEC and IECC decisions might be challenged in court, which would prolong the status quo of political uncertainty and dysfunctional government institutions. This may also delay signing of the BSA (Bilateral Security Agreement) between Afghanistan and the United States, thereby reducing the confidence of the international community in its future support of the Afghan government.
If these challenges are overcome, and Afghan voters are allowed to choose their next president under democratic conditions, the implications will be tremendous. A newly legitimized government will be able to seek international support with confidence and undertake domestic reforms with a clear popular mandate. Above all, Afghanistan will have shown itself to be one of the most democratic countries in the region. Given the significant problems still facing the country, this would be no small achievement.
Shahmahmood Miakhel is Country Director of United States of Peace in Afghanistan and former Deputy Minister of Interior of Afghanistan.
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