The second round of Afghanistan’s historic election took place on Saturday, June 14. The winner is to be announced in late July. Provided the winner and the loser – and President Karzai – accept the outcome, Afghanistan will begin its first peaceful, democratic transfer of power in history. This will be a remarkable achievement by the Afghan people, especially with their country in the grip of an insurgency.
Still, much could go wrong. Here are three things you need to know.
Both candidates have strong upsides and downsides – generally on opposite sides of the ledger. Abdullah Abdullah is Karzai’s former Foreign Minister. He served ably in that role for the Northern Alliance and in Karzai’s first term. He is Tajik (his step-father is Pashtun) and a consensus-builder. A win would make him the first non-Pashtun leader of modern Afghanistan. His ethnic background plus his strong anti-Taliban credentials could make him ideal for beginning a peace process – a bit like the Nixon-to-China effect.
Many Afghans, however, question his ability to stand up to vested interests. The world’s most corrupt country needs a hard-nosed reformer and consensus builder. Whether Abdullah can muster the political will for reform remains to be seen. He has yet to articulate a credible plan to bring peace to Afghanistan. The international community is unlikely to bankroll indefinitely a corrupt regime fighting a poorly-understood conflict with no end in sight.
Ashraf Ghani, a Ph.D. – wielding technocrat, is a Ghilzai Pashtun and former Finance Minister. His anti-corruption and reform credentials are rock-solid. He is more known than his opponent for political independence, a trait that could help him push through painful political and economic reforms. He has expressed a credible strategy to bring peace to his country – a plan far more substantive than the facile calls for “a deal” among some in the international community.
Many Afghans, however, note his short temper and irascibility. While he might have the better policies, consensus-building could be his Achilles heel. Save his infamous first Vice President candidate, Uzbek warlord Abdur Rashid Dostum, most warlords and vested interests have endorsed Abdullah. Successful efforts for reform and peace will require political support from across the Afghan polity. Ghani has the will, but whether he can build the consensus remains an open question.
Second, political alignments in Afghanistan have been fluid – and may be so again. Prior to April’s first round, Abdullah was seen as the opposition candidate. He vied with Karzai during the 2009 election and has been a vocal critic ever since. Ghani, an insider, was viewed by many as less of a threat to the Karzai legacy. During the second round campaigning, these perceptions and alignments moved in interesting ways.
Abdullah remarkably gained the support of powerful Pashtuns such as former Presidential candidates Sayyaf, Sherzai, and Rassoul, as well as various other strongmen. Many Pashtuns, it appears, are more ready for a non-Pashtun President than many pundits guessed. He has also been endorsed by Mahmoud Karzai (the President’s brother) and Haseen Fahim (the brother of the recently deceased first Vice President). These two have a business alliance that has brought together the economic interests of many Kandahari Pashtuns and Panjshiri Tajiks. They also reportedly played a large role in the Kabul Bank scandal.
Ghani has positioned himself as a reformer and voice of the youth and those outside the current system. He may, as a result, be viewed as a threat to the vested interests. He has gained some Tajik support, but not on the scale of powerful Pashtuns that Abdullah has earned.
In the event of a very close outcome, political deal-making may ultimately decide the contest. Alliances may – or may not – shift yet again.
Third, weak institutions plus widespread fraud raise the risk of political violence. Both candidates have cried foul-play. This is to be expected. Ghani has surged in the polls over the past two weeks – something viewed with suspicion by the Abdullah camp. Abdullah now wants to rubbish the vote count due to alleged bias by the Independent Electoral Commission. He has accused President Karzai of rigging the elections against him. More here.
On the ground reports, however, also highlight pro-Abdullah thuggery at various polling sites. Voter turnout was reportedly high in the South and East, which likely favors Ghani. Such turnout there also raises interesting questions about quiet Taliban encouragement of the vote.
A close outcome in the initial count plus a percentage of fraud greater than the margin of victory could lead to political instability. The Afghan electoral commissions lack the necessary credibility to resolve such a close and contested outcome. A Supreme Court decision may not be sufficiently respected. President Karzai position to could become the final arbiter, forging some sort of political settlement to the election that both candidates accept.
There is no guarantee, however, that one or both candidates would accept a Karzai brokered deal. A Karzai attempt to hold onto power or a candidate decision to take the matter to the streets could throw Afghanistan into a political crisis — just as our on-the-ground presence and leverage is declining. The U.S. and international community need to use their waning influence to urge all parties toward developing responsible solutions.
Little in Afghanistan is easy. What is displayed publicly is often very different from behind-the-scenes realities. The Afghan election probably has drama yet to come.