The mood in Kabul in the days following June 14th’s presidential run off has been somber. Relief over another round of voting without major attacks has been replaced by concern over fraud, elite manipulation and the increasing ethnic tone of political debate. Afghanistan is agonizingly close to its first democratic transition of leadership since the American invasion, but the process is in jeopardy and a strong message from the international community could do much to preserve the process.
The assumption of many of the voters that I have interviewed after the vote is that Ashraf Ghani, the second place candidate in the first round, has made significant gains. If this is the case and, particularly if the margin between Ghani and frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah is smaller than the number of voters said to be fraudulent, there will be plenty of space for discord and, potentially, violence.
One of the problems is that Ghani seems to have successfully mobilized more of the Pashtun base for this round of voting than he did in the first round when it was split with other candidates. There have been reports of high turn out in certain southern and eastern areas in particular. Problematically, these are the same areas where there have been numerous reports of fraud and where insecurity made rigorous monitoring almost impossible. It is the job of the Electoral Complaints Commission to respond to these accusations, while the Independent Election Commission counts the votes. The problem is that these bodies have already become embroiled in controversy.
The issue garnering the most attention among voters is the report and accompanying video of IEC secretary Zia Amarkhel being detained by police after attempting to leave IEC headquarters on Election Day with a truck filled with ballots. Amarkhel’s excuse that these ballers were needed at stations that were running low seems plausible and his supporters insist the entire episode was a setup to get him removed from the IEC. While a commission has been set up to investigate the issue (seemingly circumventing the ECC), in many ways the damage has already been done.
As rumors of corruption continue to spread, the problem, one voter explained to me is that “everyone has chosen aside” and that “there is no one left to mediate.” It is here that there is room for the international community to help smooth the democratic transition. The diplomatic delegations in Kabul have, thus far, done an impressive job remaining impartial during the entire election process. The have also largely been silent in public, preferring to meet quietly with candidates and election officials. Now they need to assure the Afghan public that they are committed to following the procedures laid out in Afghanistan’s electoral law and publically state that candidate interference in the process will result in a withdrawal of international support.
One of the central issues is that many in the Afghan political elite will benefit from an ambiguous, disputed result. This would give all the key actors the chance to claim that vote was rigged and that their side should have won. This will allow for more corruption and negotiation over the allocation of political positions and resources in the new government. Such an ambiguous result, however, would be terrible for both the Afghan people and the international community’s mission in Afghanistan.
While violence in this round of voting was less spectacular and garnered less attention, in part perhaps because no major international organizations were targeted as they were in the previous round, there were still plenty of attacks on local communities across the country. Similarly there is reason to be concerned about increased ethnic tensions as it more and more voters perceive the dispute between Ghani and Abdullah as a dispute between Pashtuns and the minority groups that composed much of the Northern Alliance. A disputed outcome will encourage more localized violence, potentially along ethnic lines, while continuing to undermine economic growth as businesses are parallelized waiting to determine the composition of the new government.
To advert this, the international community in Kabul needs to strongly and publicly back a transparent counting process, free of pressure from either campaign.
The Afghan voters have done their part; now it’s time for the Afghan government to do its and the international community can do much to ensure that this happens.