Over two months after Afghan voters went to the ballot boxes on June 14 – defying Taliban threats to vote in a run-off presidential election – a successor for President Hamid Karzai has yet to appear. Or rather, two successors have appeared: former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah and former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani. The latter was the unexpected victor of the second round with a one million vote lead over his rival, despite trailing Abdullah in the first round by nearly 15 points. Now, Abdullah is crying foul, or fraud that is, and threatening to boycott the election process. He alleges massive ballot stuffing, pointing to a dramatic rise in turnout in the second round in provinces where Ghani enjoys broad support. Abdullah contends that leaked telephone recordings bolster his allegations, notably an audiotape in which a senior election official refers to “stuffed sheep,” a.k.a. rigged ballots. (Ghani’s camp has denounced the tapes as fakes.)
Yet by July it looked that an accord had been reached — kind of. Thanks to the mediation efforts of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, both parties agreed to the eventual creation of a unity government, wherein the loser would take on a vaguely defined executive role, and a vote audit under national and international monitoring of all the votes cast. We repeat: all the votes cast. That is 8.1 million ballots. For an idea of the mammoth undertaking at hand, imagine boxes of hand-written ballots being transported from Afghanistan’s most isolated, rugged regions to Kabul to be individually evaluated. (The New York Times reported that as of July 23, only 4.5 percent of the approximately 22,000 ballot boxes had been reviewed.) Further complicating the process are disagreements over the criteria for disqualifying a vote, which briefly halted the audit on two occasions in late July. The process is expected to take weeks, if not months. Here’s what you need to know:
Why is this election so important?
The vote marks the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan – and an end to twelve turbulent years under the increasingly autocratic Karzai. It also offers an opportunity to create at least a semblance of stability before the withdrawal of NATO troops at the end of the year, and justify a lengthy and costly American-led intervention. A free and fair election process is critical to ensuring Karzai’s successor credibility both at home and in the international arena. (Remember that alongside the exodus of foreign fighters, the influx of international financial aid is set to dry up as well.)
What’s more, Afghanistan’s next president is expected to sign a bilateral security agreement with the United States, which would ensure that a small American presence (as many as 10,000 troops) remains in the country after the NATO pullout to assist Afghan forces battle what is sure to be a rejuvenated Taliban insurgency. Karzai passed the buck here, dangling the BSA in front of Washington for months before ultimately refusing to sign it. If the deal isn’t signed before the troop withdrawal, Washington – and Kabul – could see an undesirable repeat of the unstable security situation in Iraq, whose government rejected a similar BSA.
Is there any good news?
Yes — high turnout. The first round drew some 6.6 million Afghans, or approximately 58% of eligible voters, which represents a jump of over two million from the 2009 presidential election. The second round topped that participation with over 8 million votes. Even better, the sectarian conflicts predicted to emerge between the Abdullah’s large ethnic Tajik following and Ghani’s support base of Pashtuns have largely failed to materialize.
So what’s the bad news?
Stability is a ways away. Karzai’s successor will inherit a country riddled by extremist violence, widespread corruption and an inadequate infrastructure. The Taliban has been upping their ante in recent months in anticipation of the pullout of international troops amid ongoing political chaos in Kabul. Case in point: on July 29, a suicide bombing killing Hashmat Karzai, the president’s cousin, who was working closely with Ghani’s team.
As for national leadership, Afghans may be looking at more of the same, at least if both Ghani and Abdullah’s reluctance to fully endorse Kerry’s proposed power-sharing deal is any indication. Abdullah, so far on the losing side of the struggle, is pushing for an even 50-50 division of power; Ghani is insisting on the president’s predominant role. Further muddying the waters is the probability that Karzai will have a role in whichever government takes over; both candidates have pledged to grant the former president a position in their respective administrations. (Note that Karzai’s future residence is located mere minutes from the presidential palace.)
Afghanistan’s Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) will continue to review votes under the watchful eyes of U.N. monitors and other international delegates. Abdullah’s more hardline supporters are urging their candidate to form a parallel government, though with international support at stake, the former finance minister is unlikely to opt for such a radical move. The original inauguration date scheduled for August 2 has long passed; many analysts predict a new president won’t be chosen until December, which would leave Washington and Kabul scrambling to push through a security deal. In the meantime, Afghan voters, engaged and ready for change, are waiting.