Ethnic Divisions Mar Afghanistan’s Second-Round Elections

The Afghan election, which started with enormous enthusiasm from Afghan voters, the government and the international community, has turned sour. It is now marred with disputes centred on ethnic (mainly Pashtun/Tajik) divisions, splitting the country along ethnic lines and driving it towards a 1990s civil war scenario. With the disputes around alleged fraud unresolved, the nation’s downhill slide would end up crushing the post-2001 nation-building efforts of Afghans and the international community.

Amidst allegations of massive fraud, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the preliminary results of the second round of the election, showing Abdullah Abdullah’s rival Ashraf Ghani in the lead. The IEC said that no winner can yet be announced because the preliminary vote tally might change after an audit investigating complaints and the discarding of fraudulent votes in 7,000 polling stations (as demanded by Abdullah, agreed upon by Ghani and supported by the UN and the U.S.). Nonetheless, Ghani’s supporters held victory celebrations in several cities, while Abdullah’s supporters demonstrated in Kabul and pledged to set up a parallel government under Abdullah.

In the short term, the failure to establish the election’s legitimacy has grim economic, social, political and security implications.

To their credit, both candidates urge non-violence in the interest of national unity and legitimate governance; but analysts believe that the attitudes and actions of the ethnic cores of their political bases (largely Pashtun for Ghani and Tajik for Abdullah) are exacerbating tensions and potentials for a political deadlock.  The latest news is that UN intervention has failed to ease growing hostility in the Abdullah camp, which now demands a full audit of  a larger number (11,000 out of 22,000) of polling stations.

I was in Afghanistan during the first election round, when both candidates strongly rejected the notion that ethnicity should influence the outcome. Speaking to Afghans of various ethnic origins, I found that they were interested in the election platforms and policy positions of the candidates regardless of ethnic origins. A number of Tajiks I spoke to before the election had decided to vote for Ghani (a Pashtun) on account of his strong platform and clear policies; and many Pashtuns expressed preference for Abdullah (perceived to be Tajik) as a charismatic leader. In fact, many Afghans considered Ghani’s nomination of an Uzbek war lord as his running mate (done in order to attract Uzbek votes) as an undesirable introduction of ethnicity into the election process.

Voters turned out in large numbers to elect a leader who would help establish a legitimate government to curb Taliban resurgence. While Uzbek votes in the first round did largely go to Ghani (suggesting that ethnic divisions played somewhat of a role), the Pashtun/Tajik division was not visibly present. Abdullah won in some Pashtun provinces and Ghani won in some provinces in the north, which are Abdullah’s stronghold. These results were accepted by both sides.

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However, ethnic divisions in general—and specifically along Pashtun/Tajik lines—marked the election scenario from the start of second-round campaigning. The Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan (FEFA) raised concerns about ethnicity guiding voters’ choices, and social media showed a division of views drawn along ethnic lines.

While the first round was not totally fraud-free, fraud complaints increased vastly for the second round (as confirmed by the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan), with ethnicity serving as the main driver of fraud. Abdullah alleged voting fraud by Karzai and his aides in favor of Ghani immediately after the June 14 election, long before informal news of Ghani’s lead started circulating. Abdullah’s camp questioned the IEC’s announcement of an 8.1 million (67.5%) voter turn-out. An election observer noted  “more than half empty ballot boxes” in some centers and some polling centers’ staff complaining about low voter turn-out. Abdullah also alleged that mainly in Pashtun strongholds, the number of votes was larger than the number of eligible voters (though in the absence of any Afghan census it is difficult to ascertain the number of eligible voters).

Abdullah has also questioned the sharp second-round increase in votes for Ghani. I was told by some Ghani camp members that the Pashtun/Tajik rivalry and vote divisions were brought to the forefront when the first-round result raised Pashtuns’ fear that their long-held political leadership would slip away—thus leading Pashtuns to turn out in larger numbers in the second round to vote for a candidate of Pashtun origin. As well, I was told, supporters of Pashtun candidates who lost in the first round then rallied around Ghani in the second round.

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When I raised concerns about deepening ethnic divisions hampering national unity and national identity, I was surprised by the reaction from a high level (non-Pashtun and non-Tajik) Afghan leader. Ethnic division is a part and parcel of Afghanistan’s history and could not be reversed, he said; people must live with it.

This was a depressing revelation for me because I have been arguing for over a decade that Afghans have increasingly been accepting national identity and trans-ethnic unity-building as integral components of the state-building process. However, I am not yet ready to reverse my views on changing Afghan attitudes. Such change, especially in the youth—a rising force in the country—can serve as a major asset in the hands of Afghan leaders and the international community to promote peace building.

In the short term, the failure to establish the election’s legitimacy has grim economic, social, political and security implications. If a joint government under Ghani and Abdullah proves impossible to form and a new election is needed, then Afghans (in consultation with the international community) should consider an interim arrangement, perhaps in the form of a caretaker government. A strong dose of optimism about the potential of Afghans to overcome ethnic divisions will be called for as well.

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