The South Asia Channel

How to Save the Afghan Election

As second-round voting in the Afghan presidential election concluded on Saturday, June 14, press reports lauded the turnout and diplomats cautiously breathed a sigh of relief at the lower than anticipated levels of violence. However, with Abdullah Abdullah orchestrating protests in Kabul over what he has alleged is electoral fraud, a peaceful transition of power from current President Hamid Karzai to his successor is still far from assured.

Few international observers or Western journalists ventured outside of Kabul on voting day and anecdotal reports of ballot stuffing were widely recounted. But no one expected it to be quite this egregious. In the highly volatile southern provinces of Paktika and Khost, for instance, where votes were expected to be low, reports of initial tallies show that the turnout exceeded the estimated population.

Reported estimates have Abdullah trailing rival Ashraf Ghani, but he is unlikely to surrender without a fight. Abdullah feels fraud denied him victory during his 2009 run against Karzai and he believes that ballot-stuffing is the only thing that could prevent him from winning this time around. Three days after the vote, Abdullah began sounding the alarm of massive electoral fraud and subsequently pulled his observers from the Independent Election Commission (IEC) in a boycott of the process. On June 20 and 21, Abdullah supporters held "anti-fraud" protests around Kabul.

Rumors are now swirling around the capital as to Abdullah's motives. Some of the more outlandish theories even posit that Karzai, as a pretext to hold onto power, has masterminded the unrest. Last Saturday's failed assassination attempt against High Peace Council Chairman Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai and recent clashes between prominent Ghani and Abdullah supporters only added to the fear and tension. Monday's resignation of IEC Chief Electoral Officer Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, whom Abdullah accused of orchestrating fraud in favor of Ghani, paved the way for Abdullah to back down and rejoin the process gracefully. 

Yet Abdullah has little incentive to surrender the election quietly. Afghan politics rarely reward gracious losers and public demonstrations, along with the use of violence, are well-worn negotiating tactics. As Anna Larson and Noah Coburn point out, protests against fraud are particularly common. By negating the electoral process, failed candidates distract from their own inability to come out on top. It's a self-defeating and dangerous strategy. Nonetheless, the very real possibility that protests could have turned violent played on the international community's fears of the process going off the rails and increased media coverage of Abdullah's grievances.

In my conversations with Afghan friends and colleagues in Kabul over the past few days, no one disputes that there has been widespread fraud and many are disillusioned with the way the process has played out. Few think the accusations should be brushed under the rug. But they also think it is up to the election bodies, with the international community's support, to investigate and address discrepancies -- however long it takes.

So far, the international community is sounding the right notes with the deputy head of the U.N., Nicholas Haysom, affirming the protestors' rights but urging calm. Karzai has also voiced support for the U.N. in mediating the crisis, but this is ultimately a dispute that must be settled by Afghans. Stepping in with a heavy hand would be a no-win game for the U.N.: Its credibility in dealing with fraud was profoundly tarnished in the 2009 election fiasco and it would likely be saddled with much of the blame for a flawed process. The most useful role the organization can play now is in publicly calling for restraint and privately mediating the conflict, as it has in recent days.  

Most Afghans are desperate for change, in the form of a strong and inclusive leader who is capable of seeing the country through uncertain times. However, if the election's result lacks legitimacy, greater instability and fragmentation is almost guaranteed.

Whoever emerges as the victor will be leading a country on the precipice. The situation will be made ever more difficult by an electoral mess, and a failed process could result in rapidly diminished donor support. The economic impact of the troop drawdown has already weakened the economy, with GDP growth dropping from 14.4 percent in 2012 to 3.6 percent in 2013, according to the World Bank. A similarly dramatic decrease in aid funding could profoundly undermine any new government seeking to guide the country through what will undoubtedly be a difficult and dangerous period.

With nearly 95 percent of Afghanistan's GDP dependent on international aid, any donor funding cuts will spell disaster. In the worst-case scenario, government revenues will dry up and the incoming president won't even be able to pay the salaries of government employees or security forces.

As such, signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, and with it shoring up donor support, will be critical priorities for the next Afghan president. Afghan security forces still have a long way to go and need financial and technical support: an independent assessment recently found worrying gaps in their capacities, ranging from basic logistics to recruiting and retaining enough troops to provide even the most basic security. Insurgent attacks continue to escalate and a recent International Crisis Group report predicts that the violence will only continue to increase as coalition troops withdraw.

However, what is often overlooked amidst all of these dire warnings is the increasing fragmentation of the pro-government Afghan factions. In the face of declining aid contracts, which have enriched local powerbrokers and elites over the past decade, many have been searching for new sources of revenue. The warlords, who have been co-opted into the political system, have been motivated to participate by massive aid budgets, military contracts, and other funding sources that line their pockets. As the aid money dries up, they will have far less incentive to play by the rules.

The real worry is that Afghanistan will fall even deeper into conflict, and be forgotten once again by the rest of the world. However there is still much the international community can do to avert the worst-case scenario. Right now, that means seeing the elections through to ensure a legitimate and accepted outcome.  

Ashley Jackson is an independent analyst, currently researching Afghan politics with the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit and the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium. She previously worked in Afghanistan with the Overseas Development Institute, United Nations, and Oxfam. Follow the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium on Twitter: @SLRCtweet.   

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images