Afghanistan has suddenly grown tense as presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah publicly declared himself the winner of June’s disputed run-off presidential elections on Monday. This statement came days before the announcement of audited election results, which are expected to give the election to Abdullah’s rival, Ashraf Ghani. Ghani is a Pashtun whose support is in southern Afghanistan while Abdullah is (half) Tajik, with a power base in northern Afghanistan.
Abdullah’s timing is notable and may be the result of pressure from his supporters to reject the audit results no matter what. It also comes one day before the 13th anniversary of the assassination by Al Qaeda of northern hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, who fought the Pashtun Taliban. Rejecting the results before they are released would be easier than after, since doing so would cast doubt on their legitimacy. Abdullah told his supporters that “we are the winner of the election based on the clean votes of the people. Fraud, fraudulent results and the announcement of the fraudulent results are not acceptable.”
Abdullah’s move comes despite United States Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts. Kerry had previously brokered a deal in which both candidates agreed to accept the outcome of an audit of the elections. However, many northern Afghans, most of whom are Tajiks, feel cheated of the president’s post again; Abdullah conceded the 2009 presidential election to Hamid Karzai. There is a perception that the Pashtun establishment, possibly backed by Karzai, used its influence to bias the present election towards Ghani.
Still, it seems likely that Ghani did actually win the election because of the consolidation of the Pashtun vote around him. In the first round of the Afghan elections, there were several Pashtun candidates in addition to Abdullah, the only Tajik who ran in the election. This would explain how Abdullah won the first round of the elections but not the second one. Additionally, Ghani has some support in the north because his vice presidential candidate, Rashid Dostum, hails from the minority Uzbek community concentrated near the border with Uzbekistan.
In response to Abdullah’s comments, a spokesman for Ghani stated that Ghani was prepared to assume power unilaterally should Abdullah fail to return to the bargaining table. This would be legitimate, according to the spokesman, because Ghani won the election. Although Ghani has been more cooperative than Abdullah during the audit process (probably because he has no reason not to be, since all accounts indicate he won), his camp has also reneged on some issues. Most significantly, he does not seem to be delivering fully on his promise to establish a national unity government. This promise was part of an agreement, brokered by Kerry, that envisioned the losing candidate serving in a newly created chief executive position.
There are fears that the standoff between the two men could lead to violence. According to the Wall Street Journal, “leaders from the Jamiat-e Islami, a political party associated with the Tajik community and Mr. Abdullah, threatened in August to oppose Mr. Ghani with help from allies in the Afghan National Security Forces. Provincial and district governors with close ties to Mr. Abdullah may be arming militias to shore up their power bases in case of a Ghani victory.” While Abdullah urged his followers to seek recourse through non-violent means, many northern militia leaders have said that there will be uprisings if Abdullah is denied victory. There are fears that in such a situation, the Afghan National Security Forces could fracture on ethnic lines. This could lead to violence and possibly civil war, and play into the hands of the Taliban, which no faction in Afghanistan wants to see back in power. It would also jeopardize Afghanistan’s relatively impressive economic and development progress. There are many in Afghanistan who cynically claim that this is all part of Karzai’s plan to extend his term or impose an interim government. This is certainly an outcome that many senior security and political officials in Afghanistan would not be opposed to, an outcome that is arguably better than civil war or Taliban gains.
However, ideally the situation should be diffused by everyone in Afghanistan accepting the results of the audit which points to a Ghani victory. The United States should also support this outcome to de-incentivize Abdullah’s supporters from prolonging the current crisis. Abdullah ought to accept that he lost the election legitimately and both candidates should work towards forming a unity government. If this calls for creating extra-legal provisions, then so be it, as that would be better than civil war. However, in the long run, this is merely a temporary patch.
What Afghanistan needs is a political system that reflects the reality of a multi-ethnic country with many factions. As I pointed out in an earlier article, Afghanistan’s mistake is in attempting to create a strong, centralized state in a country where people feel closest to local and tribal institutions. Afghanistan’s provinces should be given significant autonomy, like Swiss cantons. Furthermore, at the national level, Afghanistan should seriously consider adopting a parliamentary rather than a presidential democracy. A parliamentary system would diffuse power more widely and would allow many different factions to create or shift alliances and share power in many different permutations. The post of the prime minister could be shuffled around between different factions on the basis of compromise instead of one individual winning everything, to the exclusion of his rivals, in a presidential system. This more closely resembles the tribal and ethnic alliance-making patterns of Afghanistan than a centralized presidential system does.