Despite early optimism, Afghanistan’s presidential election looks to be going off the rails. Monday saw top election official Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail resign over allegations he conspired to commit fraud in the presidential run-off vote held on June 14, which pitted frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah against Ashraf Ghani. Now, Abdullah is boycotting the election process and accusing the election commission, the current administration headed by President Hamid Karzai and his rival Ghani of fraud. (Initial ballot counts indicate that Ghani is ahead after finishing thirteen points behind Abdullah in the first election round.)
The first ballot, held on April 5, was a relative success (key word: relative) and free from the widespread violence threatened by Taliban insurgents amid high turnout, i.e., an estimated 58% of eligible voters. This time around, security fears were heightened as the ballot coincided with the Taliban’s traditional spring offensive. Over 60 people were killed Saturday in Taliban attacks; dozens were injured, including eleven voters whose ink-stained fingers were cut off. Yet, it’s fraud claims from both camps that are most threatening the critical vote.
The ramifications are serious. The presidential election marks the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan, and will shape the country’s post-Karzai future, not to mention its trajectory once a U.S.-led military coalition withdraws by the end of the year. Kabul – and Washington – are both counting on a free and fair election to grant much needed cred to Karzai’s successor. Even the current president – long opposed to international meddling – is calling for U.N. intervention, alongside Abdullah himself (Ghani is opposed); last week Karzai met with the U.N. envoy to Afghanistan Jan Kubis. But while the United Nations has urged Abdullah to re-engage in the election process in order to preserve the ballot’s legitimacy, the world body – and the White House – is reluctant to step in. Little wonder, for Washington at least, the idea is to get out of Afghanistan quickly and cleanly, leaving a bare bones security presence, while ensuring a peaceful transition.
However, sectarianism is already threatening to complicate that withdrawal as ethnic divisions between Afghan voters deepen. (Abdullah has a large support base in northern Afghanistan among the Tajik minority, while Ghani is a member of Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, concentrated in the south and east.) Protests erupted this weekend in Kabul as Abdullah supporters rallied against alleged election fraud. Though such demonstrations have thus far drawn participants numbering in the hundreds or low thousands, analysts warn of the potential for increased turmoil along sectarian lines. Come July 2, when the preliminary election results are due, look for those tensions to escalate.