The Pulse

Afghanistan’s Election Tipping Point

Allegations of fraud could destabilize Afghanistan at a critical juncture in its history.

Afghanistan just concluded its run-off vote to determine its next president and the signs that the country will head towards a comfortable and stable transition of power appear to be diminishing with every passing day. As Srinjoy Bose noted in a detailed observer’s account for The Diplomat, election rigging practices were more prevalent during the run-off vote than during the general provincial and presidential elections in April. Specifically, presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, who comfortably led the polls in the first round of voting, now rejects the results, alleging that his opponent, Ashraf Ghani, had supporters rigging the election. According to Abdullah, any result announced by the Independent Election Commission will be unacceptable because it would be marred by “industrial scale fraud.”

This is a dangerous trend in Afghanistan at an incredibly delicate time for the country’s fledgling democracy. One of the key aspects of making democracy work is for losers to graciously accept defeat. Abdullah’s refusal to accept the result of the election could lead to protracted political controversy surrounding the election results. What further complicates the situation in Afghanistan is the perceived ethnicization of the vote as Abdullah is seen as Afghanistan’s first realistic Tajik candidate to lead the country while Ghani has the support of the country’s Pashtun plurality.

What is additionally troubling about Abdullah’s accusations is that he has charged Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) and its complaints body of favoring Ghani. He warned that these institutions will be responsible for the “consequences” of the election.

Results won’t be announced for a month and investigations are already underway to determine the scope of the fraud being alleged by Abdullah. Abdullah’s supporters, meanwhile, have not taken to the streets of Kabul to protest the election. Should the IEC announce Ghani as the winner of the run-off vote, this scenario becomes far more likely and will be to the detriment of Afghanistan’s democracy and its political transition as the United States and NATO troops prepare to depart the country.

The situation partly hearkens back to 2009 when Abdullah lost to Hamid Karzai after withdrawing from the run-off vote because of fraud. Abdullah partly backed out then because of growing international pressure, allowing Karzai to continue on as Afghanistan’s president despite widespread evidence of electoral fraud.

The manner in which Afghanistan’s IEC navigates Abdullah’s complaints in the coming weeks could be crucial for Afghanistan’s ongoing political transition. The last thing the country needs right now is a politicized debacle emanating from electoral fraud. Afghanistan’s April 5 elections demonstrated the country’s unity behind democratic institutions, marking a major defeat for the Taliban. Should Afghans begin to doubt the process and outcomes of democracy at this juncture, the country’s future stability may be imperiled.