Beset by violence and poverty and facing an uncertain future, Afghanistan could be headed for yet another major political crisis as the September 28 presidential election may not produce a credible and acceptable winner.
The campaign teams of 70-year old President Dr Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah Abdullah, 59, have already declared victory in an apparent bid to pre-empt the rival side from claiming a win.
This isn’t the first time that candidates in Afghan elections have claimed victory before all the votes are counted and the Independent Election Commission has declared the preliminary results. Dr Abdullah had done so in the 2014 presidential election, setting the stage for a long and bitter dispute with Ashraf Ghani that threatened to lead to violence between their supporters.
Eventually the US had to intervene and John Kerry, the then secretary of state, brokered a power-sharing agreement between the winner, Ashraf Ghani, and the close loser, Abdullah, to prevent chaos and a possible civil war. The former was made the president while the latter became the chief executive officer, a newly created, unconstitutional office that under the agreement had to be ratified as prime minister by a traditional Loya Jirga, or grand assembly of Afghan notables and elders. This never happened even though the two ruled the country for five years as part of an uneasy coalition.
This time, too, Abdullah personally declared victory two days after conclusion of the polling on the basis of vote-count figures received from a majority of polling stations. Not to be left behind, Ashraf Ghani’s running-mate, Amrullah Saleh, also claimed victory, insisting they had obtained 60 to 70 percent of the vote. In fact, both claimed a first-round victory meaning that their tally of votes was more than 50 percent, thereby avoiding the need for a second-round between the two top candidates. If true, this would be quite remarkable considering the fact that there were 14 contestants in the crowded field of aspirants for president, including former warlord Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, diplomat Shaida Mohammad Abdali, spymaster Rahmatullah Nabeel and several ministers.
Questions were raised about the fairness of the vote even before the polling. The US too was cognizant of this issue and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the American Ambassador to Afghanistan John Bass had asked the Afghan government and the country’s electoral institutions to make all arrangements necessary for ensuring a transparent election.
Washington, which provided the military and economic assistance that has sustained the Afghan government in power, must have been disappointed by the prospect of yet another rigged election and contested outcome. However, it is being speculated that under the Trump administration the US may not intervene the way it did in 2014 as forcing reluctant rivals to form an unworkable coalition didn’t really pay off during the last five years. Still abandoning the candidates to resolve their issues on their own may not be a good idea in view of the fact that the Afghans have always needed outside support and guidance to be able to reconcile with each other.
The US had just prior to the election expressed its lack of trust in the Ashraf Ghani government to tackle corruption and ensure transparency in its dealings by taking back $100 million intended for an energy project and withholding another $60 million in additional aid. It had cited unacceptably high levels of corruption in the Afghan government for the decision and said Ashraf Ghani’s administration had been neither transparent nor accountable in its public spending. The US had gone on to the extent of declaring that the Afghan government was incapable of being a partner in the international effort to build a better future for the Afghan people. With such a low level of confidence in the Afghan government, the likelihood of another stint in power for the same two rulers – Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah — is unlikely to inspire the US to continue backing them.
The election suffered from a number of shortcomings. The Independent Election Commission (IEC) is independent only in name as it has repeatedly been accused of partiality and failing to hold free, fair and transparent elections. The outcomes of all seven elections, including four for president and three for the parliament, held to-date have been doubted and contested following allegations of widespread fraud and rigging. The slow counting and delay in announcing the results also create doubts and fuel anger.
This time the IEC is scheduled to announce the preliminary results on October 19, three weeks after the polling date. That would be followed by certification of the vote after the Election Complaints Commission gives its verdict on the complaints about the electoral process. Already, hundreds of complaints have been received. More would likely be made until the deadline. Though the second-round polling is to take place in November in case no candidate obtains 50 percent of the vote in the first-round, many Afghans have pointed out that polling would become difficult in the winter which becomes quite harsh in many parts of Afghanistan due to the heavy snowfall. The second-round polling could thus be postponed until spring.
The presidential election was twice postponed over security concerns and lack of preparations. Postponing it a third time would have raised questions about the performance of the national unity government of President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Dr Abdullah and further diminished the credibility of the IEC.
The demand by some presidential candidates for installation of an interim government to ensure a credible election was rejected by both Ashraf Ghani and Dr Abdullah as they wanted to hold the polls under their watch. The former benefited more than the latter as he had all the powers as an incumbent president to dole out favours. As these two incumbents were the frontrunners in the polls, it put off many voters. This was one of the reasons for the extremely low turnout in the September 28 vote.
The issue of turnout has taken centre-stage as the IEC on the basis of preliminary and incomplete polling figures first said 1.1 million voters of the total 9.67 million had cast their ballots. Later, it estimated that about 2 to 2.5 million had voted. The number may shrink as invalid, fraudulent and challenged votes would be discounted. This meant that about one in five voters had cast votes. This was the lowest turnout in the four presidential contest held in Afghanistan with an estimated population of 35 million since 2001 in the post-Taliban period.
The turnout was an impressive 70 percent in 2004, dropping to a third of that high figure in 2009, rising to 60 percent in 2014 and now falling sharply to 25-26 percent in 2019. Taliban warnings to the electorate to stay away from the polling stations probably scared away many voters, but other factors such as corruption, poor governance and the presence of the same candidates (both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah were contesting their third presidential election) also contributed to the voters’ disinterest.
There were other issues as well, including missing voters’ names, election material sent late or to the wrong place and technical hitches when biometric devices didn’t work. The Taliban-sponsored violence had been high in previous polls, but voters’ participation was more than in 2019. The unusually muted election campaign also was a factor because voters couldn’t be motivated to go to the polling stations. All this contributed to apparently the lowest turnout in any election in the world in recent times.
The elected president, provided the losing candidates concede defeat, would lack credibility with such a low turnout and poor share of the polled vote. Taliban had always refused to recognize the Afghan government and rejected the idea of holding peace talks with it as they claimed it was a powerless puppet of the US.
The Taliban position is likely to stiffen as they are now saying that the Afghan people had heeded their call and rejected the polls held under an American agenda in the presence of foreign occupying forces. This could weaken the prospects for peace if Taliban don’t talk to the Afghan government, which is internally recognised, and agree to a deal with fellow Afghans opposed to them.
President Ashraf Ghani was hoping to win a fresh mandate to be able to talk to the Taliban from a position of strength. Those hopes have been shattered as he would be in a weaker position than during his first five years in power even if he is elected. The same would hold true for Abdullah Abdullah in case he is elected president.