As Afghanistan is preparing to hold a second round of polling to elect a new president the risks and challenges are only growing.
A turnout of almost seven million Afghan voters, 36 percent of them female, on April 5 was celebrated with limited Taliban attacks, at least compared to the 2009 elections. There was also less political drama, again compared to the 2009 elections when Afghanistan barely avoided a political collapse.
However, the widely lauded election has produced many losers but no outright winner.
Afghan voters will have to face the threat of the Taliban again – and the U.S. and other donors will have to cough up tens of millions of dollars – to elect the next Afghan president, with the choice down to two men, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai.
These two frontrunners each won more than two million votes in the first round, but neither secured the required 50 percent plus one vote needed to declare victory.
Six other contenders who together attracted fewer than 24 percent of the total votes are out of the race but still remain somewhat relevant to the second round politicking.
The second poll will be on June 7, according to Afghanistan’s Independent Elections Commission (IEC), a constitutional body whose entire leadership has been appointed by incumbent President Hamid Karzai.
Over the last decade, the summer – June, July and August – has been the deadliest season in Afghanistan as Taliban insurgents find the warmer weather most convenient to launch attacks, execute targeted assassinations, plant bombs, and initiate other subversive operations.
Securing a runoff election during this so-called “fighting season” will be far more challenging for the nascent Afghan security forces than the previous round was. By June, the numbers of U.S. and NATO forces will be down still further as the allies seek to wind down the war by December 2014. Already more than 60,000 American troops have left Afghanistan.
Even if the June 7 polling is not disrupted by the insurgents, it will take the Afghan electoral bodies several weeks to announce the final results, delaying still further an already delayed U.S.-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA). Only with a signed BSA can the U.S. leave a limited military mission in Afghanistan post 2014, U.S. officials have said. Joseph F. Dunford, the top U.S.-NATO commander in Afghanistan, has said September 2014 would be the last month during which the BSA could be signed. If the results of the runoff are rejected by the losing candidate, it could plunge the country into a severe political crisis and make signing the BSA even more complicated.
Aside from the security threats, the runoff entails significant political risks.
In February 2014, I interviewed Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani and found their positions on most issues somewhat similar. What struck me, however, was each man’s disregard for the other. Abdullah even refused to call Ghani his rival, instead telling me that his two opponents were “fraud and fraud.” And although he received just less than 45 percent of the vote in the first round, according to the tally announced by the IEC, Abdullah has nonetheless claimed victory.
Also at issue are the two men’s ethnic, political and social power bases.
Abdullah is running from the platform of the former Northern Alliance, specifically the Panjshiri elite who were the architects of the post-Taliban order in Afghanistan. Despite his claims that he represents the entire country, many of Abdullah’s team are former Mujahideen who fought two bloody wars in the last three decades: once against the Soviets and then against the Taliban. And despite his mixed Pashtun and Tajik ethnic roots, Abdullah is widely perceived as a patron of the Tajiks.
Ashraf Ghani, on the other hand, has been accused of alienating the Tajiks, Afghanistan’s second largest ethnic group. A Pashtun, Ghani has teamed with an Uzbek and a Hazara and has not been endorsed by any prominent Tajik leader. His senior vice presidential nominee, Abdul Rashid Dostum, has been both a formidable votes-bank and a political liability given his controversial past.
In 2009, Abdullah quit a runoff with Karzai and set up a political opposition block. But Karzai did not take all as winner, but rather incorporated most of Abdullah’s ex-Northern Alliance comrades into top government positions.
There are no signs either of the two rivals will sidestep the runoff and strike a power-sharing deal. Each wants to be president and the sole winner of the process.
In the Afghan political context, the kneejerk reaction to the runoff announcement is deal-making and the promises of future rewards by each candidate. While there will also be efforts to exploit the ethnic sentiments of voters, turning the election into a zero-sum game between the Pashtun and the Tajik populations would be disastrous for the future political sanity of the country.
Two major players that have largely acted as bystanders in the election process are the U.S. and Karzai. As the runoff scenario unfolds, it’s time for the White House and the Arg to set aside old grievances and work together in transiting Afghanistan to the next stage.
Akmal Dawi is a Washington-based Afghan journalist. He tweets from @Kabul3.