After a promising start, Afghanistan’s presidential election was thrown into turmoil due to the abrupt decision by one of the leading candidates, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, to boycott the vote-counting in the June 14 run-off vote in protest against rigging in the polls.
Though the 53-year old Abdullah subsequently on June 24 decided to reconsider his boycott of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (EEC) following the acceptance of one of his key demands that the IEC secretary Ziaul Haq Amarkhel should step down, the issues highlighted by him remain unresolved.
Abdullah’s aides have made it clear that cases of alleged fraud in the second round of polling needed to be fully investigated and the turnout figures ought to be clarified as there wasn’t much evidence to back the IEC claim that more than seven million votes were polled.
The IEC claim, soon after the polling, that around seven million voters voted in the run-off vote came as a surprise because the figures were somewhat higher than the first round of voting on April 5 when several thousand candidates for the 34 provincial councils were also contesting the polls on the same day along with the eight presidential contestants. All the candidates were trying every tactic and spending money to bring as many voters as possible to the polling stations and even then only 6.9 million people came out to vote. The turnout should have been less in the June 14 second round polling as there were only two presidential candidates, Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Dr Ashraf Ghani, but the IEC sprang a surprise when it insisted that more than seven million voters had voted.
Suspecting foul-play, Abdullah alleged that 1-2 million votes were illegally stuffed into the ballot boxes to ensure victory for the 64-year old Ghani. They also questioned the unusually high turnout in several Pashtun-populated provinces in the south and east, where Ghani as the Pashtun presidential candidate was the favourite. However, Ghani’s aides also raised questions whether the voting was transparent in the north where the majority non-Pashtun voters from the Tajik and Hazara ethnic groups overwhelmingly backed Abdullah.
Ghani also accused certain security officials, who are mostly non-Pashtuns, of campaigning for Abdullah.
By agreeing to hold talks with the 11 IEC and EEC commissioners and resuming limited cooperation with the two election commissions, Abdullah’s camp signalled its willingness to find a solution of the contentious issues. However, it hasn’t given up its demand that the issues should be settled before completion of the vote-counting to ensure credible election and honour the people’s mandate. The partial result wasn’t announced as planned when objections were raised by Abdullah.
The IEC secretary Ziaul Haq Amarkhel’s role became controversial when Abdullah accused him of committing fraud in the polls to favour Ghani. His campaign staff made public some audio-tapes in which Amarkhel is issuing instructions to the IEC staff. One of the major demands of Abdullah was Amarkhel’s resignation.
Though Amarkhel denied the allegations and termed the tapes as fake, he opted to quit by arguing that he was doing so in the national interest to save the electoral process and put an end to the controversy.
The IEC chairman Ahmad Yousaf Nuristani defended Amarkhel while President Hamid Karzai too paid him tributes for his selfless services to the nation.
The mediation by the UN officials led by the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) head Jan Kubis as demanded by Abdullah and agreed by Karzai reportedly improved chances of reconciliation.
However, the issues haven’t been fully resolved yet, and the situation would become clear on July 2, when the preliminary result of the run-off vote would be made public. If the result gave the lead to Ghani, there is every possibility that Abdullah would object to the outcome and again highlight the rigging issue.
This is what is being feared and such an impasse could result in ethnic polarisation.
The final result of the polls must be declared on July 22, but a number of hurdles would have to be crossed before a winner is announced. And if all goes well and the loser accepts the result, the new president would take oath on August 2.
The old rivalry between Karzai and Abdullah also haunted the presidential polls. During the past five years, Abdullah had emerged as the leading opposition figure to Karzai and had used his political group, Change and Hope, to criticise Karzai’s policies. Abdullah had served as Karzai’s foreign minister after the first president election in 2004 before falling out with him.
Though the slow vote-counting continued despite Abdullah’s objections, the absence of his polling agents deprived the process of credibility. Afghan and international observers continued to observe the vote-counting at the IEC polling centres, it seems Abdullah’s team could demand recounting.
Reports suggested that Ashraf Ghani was leading with 58 per cent of the polled votes with Abdullah surprisingly trailing behind with only 42 per cent. If true, it meant that Ghani had made big gains after securing 31.6 per cent of the vote in the first round apparently due to high level of support from the Pashtuns and Uzbeks, who backed him because the Uzbek warlord Abdur Rasheed Dostum was his running mate.
As for Abdullah, it was shocking that his tally of votes dropped to 42 per cent after having obtained nearly 45 per cent of the polled votes in the first round.
Abdullah reacted furiously when such news were leaked out as he was expecting an easy win. Soon afterwards, some of his men made calls for civil disobedience.
As the crisis deepened, Karzai floated two proposals for resolving the issue. One was the mediation by the UN even though it involved foreigners as the Afghans were hitherto priding themselves for having organised the 2014 election without involving foreigners as was done in the previous polls. The second proposal, which Karzai termed the ‘Afghani solution’ was to resolve it internally by asking the two presidential candidates to nominate their representatives to sit with the country’s two vice-presidents, Mohammad Younis Qanooni and Karim Khalili, and reach a consensus decision.
The first proposal, which had been made by Abdullah also, was tried by involving the UN in the mediation effort even though the IEC head Nuristani wondered how and in which capacity UNAMA would be able to intervene in the matter.
The stalemate amounted to an anti-climax to an electoral process that had generated much hope and was widely hailed after the first round of the polling due to the wide participation of the voters despite Taliban threats and general insecurity in the country. For the second time in almost two months, Afghans voted in significant numbers in the hope that their new president would help improve their lot and restore peace in the post-2014 period, following the drawdown of the Nato forces from Afghanistan.
The concern about rigging in the presidential election had been uppermost in the minds of the candidates and the voters due to similar happenings in the past. Almost every past election since the fall of the Taliban regime in December 2001 was marred by allegations of fraud. Widespread allegations of use of force and money had made the polls controversial.
Karzai had vehemently denied the allegations and blamed the US for deliberately highlighting the issue to ensure his defeat and de-legitimise his presidency. In fact, the issue generated enough heat to cause deterioration in relations between Karzai and President Barack Obama to an extent that they were unable to reconcile with each other.
Failure to resolve the controversies concerning the 2014 presidential election could prove divisive in multi-ethnic Afghanistan, which is still recovering from years of conflict and is in desperate need of peace and reconciliation. Taliban had rejected the polls held in presence of the US-led foreign forces and they could benefit militarily and politically if their opponents fail to present a united front in case the presidential election is unable to produce a credible winner.