The South Asia Channel

Fixing the Afghan Election Mess

The direct phone call between Afghan presidential hopeful Abdullah Abdullah and U.S. President Barack Obama on July 8 brought a temporary respite in what is becoming a rapidly escalating electoral emergency. Obama is also reported to have called Ashraf Ghani, Abdullah's rival and the leading candidate in the preliminary results announced by Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission (IEC) the day before. Shortly after Obama's call with Abdullah, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Kabul on Thursday, July 10, to negotiate a solution to the crisis.

The United States has considerable leverage on Afghan political elites -- as evidenced by the fact that Ghani has agreed to a plan to audit 43 percent of the polling sites -- that can be used to negotiate a way out of the impasse. There are, however, limits to what the United States can achieve. If Kerry were to suggest, for example, that one of the candidates - either Ghani or Abdullah -- should concede defeat, all hell may break loose. On one hand, Abdullah will not countenance any suggestion that declares Ghani the winner; in fact, he has publicly stated that he has won the election and only stopped short of declaring a parallel government. On the other hand, Ghani's 56.4 percent vote tally puts him in a stronger bargaining position, making it harder to persuade him to concede.

The tension has led to agitation and, at times, a worrying propensity toward violence and unrest among the masses in Afghanistan. In a highly symbolic move, supporters of Abdullah tore down President Hamid Karzai's portrait from the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) tent, where some of the most important national events have been held in recent years. Social media is rife with accusations and increasingly blatant ethnicized comments by supporters of both camps. While both the Abdullah and Ghani campaign teams are multiethnic in composition -- and significant numbers of votes have been cast across ethnic lines -- many view the outcome of the election through an ethnic lens. The hazard of a lingering crisis without credible prospects for a fair outcome is that hard-line ethnic entrepreneurs may hijack the narrative and turn the crisis into a zero-sum game.

In this milieu, the proposal for a "unity government" (the idea itself is underdeveloped) will not be entertained. From Abdullah's point of view, he did not contest (and win) the election only to concede defeat or agree to a power-sharing deal in which he will most certainly not be president. Similarly, Ghani will never consider stepping aside, especially not when the preliminary IEC tally indicates he is the winner. Ghani's supporters, too, should be considered. Will Pashtuns acquiesce to any suggestion that Ghani step aside? Unlikely. There is a real danger that both candidates will not be able to persuade their supporters to accept defeat, leading to a situation where lines may be drawn in the sand, literally; a fragmenting of the state with parallel administrations will most likely witness civil war, too.

There are three major pathways to achieving a potential resolution to the current crisis. First, a power-sharing mechanism through a coalition government has been suggested, but was rejected by both candidates. For Abdullah, a purported prime ministerial post brings administrative and legal challenges, though these are not insurmountable by any means. One needs only a Loya Jirga decision to create such a post (recall that the post of provincial governor is not mentioned in the Afghan Constitution, yet it exists in every province). But again, the failure of the talks between the two candidates indicates that Abdullah will settle for nothing less than president. Even if Abdullah considers the possibility of power-sharing or a concession, there is reason to fear his elite supporters, such as strongman governor Atta Mohammad Noor, may declare parallel administrations. For the moment, it is only Noor who has voiced this threat, but it is not far-fetched to think that other politicians will join him in the future.

The second is an (emergency) Loya Jirga, as suggested by one expert in a recent South Asia Channel post. The author suggests that the electoral process is irretrievably broken, arguing that: "No amount of vote recounting or auditing can create a clean outcome of what is emerging as a corrupt second round." Instead, she suggests that a mediated process, via a Loya Jirga, could provide a solution to the impasse. Yet, this analysis misses the mark.

While the electoral process has indeed suffered, a political process must complement a legitimate electoral one and not be considered as an alternative to it. Historically, the Loya Jirga has been a Pashtun-dominated mechanism designed to rubber-stamp the rulers' writ and policies. Just because the members of the jirga were at odds with Karzai during the debate over the bilateral security agreement, it does not mean they will be at odds again, particularly if they feel they have the ability to "elect" one of their own as president. It is unlikely, therefore, that Abdullah will agree to such a process. Also, there is a danger in advocating reified views of the state and its institutions: The Loya Jirga is a means of elite consensus that undermines the electoral process and the constitution. Whatever the outcome of such a consensus, large sections of the Afghan populace will view it as robbery, further delegitimizing the process and outcome.

Third, it is clear that the integrity of the IEC and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) is significantly compromised. Procedural appraisals and technical audits alone cannot restore their credibility (at least in the eyes of Abdullah supporters). But any eventual solution cannot afford to sideline or ignore the electoral process either. We therefore suggest that a reasonably acceptable solution can be crafted by conducting a rigorous technical audit that is backed by robust political negotiation. Any audit will need to be supervised and led by international electoral experts, i.e. experienced electoral officials working with international agencies (such as international election commissions, best-practices departments with the United States, etc.). In the past, such experts have held key advisory positions within the IEC and the ECC. A key objective of the political dialogue should focus on diffusing ethnic emotions through continued dialogue between the leaders of both camps.

An extensive audit, however, means delaying any announcement of a winner -- possibly by several weeks. As a result, there are several corollaries that will need to be addressed in such an instance. First, the Afghan public will need to be convinced that this is the most legitimate and justified solution to the crisis. The candidates will play a critical role here, asking their supporters to show calm, restraint, and patience. They will also need to convey to their powerful political backers that inflammatory announcements will not be tolerated. Second, a definite timeline will need to be announced. A decision will need to be taken as to who or what should act as a caretaker government in the interim: the U.N. or the Afghan speaker of the house can fulfill this duty; it is highly unlikely that Karzai will be considered for this task as it will fuel speculation that this was his endgame all along, a ruse to prolong his presidency.

The seriousness of the current electoral crisis cannot be underestimated. A protracted electoral impasse in the midst of profound economic distress and security concerns (resulting from declining foreign aid and international military withdrawal) will risk the political stability and integrity of Afghanistan's state institutions.

Srinjoy Bose is the Prime Minister's Endeavour Award recipient and a Ph.D. scholar at the Australian National University. He was an international elections observer during the April 5 and June 14 presidential and provincial council elections in Kabul.

Niamat Ibrahimi is an Endeavour Award recipient and Ph.D. scholar at the Australian National University. 

Photo by SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images