Short-term Hopes for a Unity Government as Prospects for Afghan Democracy Darken

Afghanistan’s never-ending election process is continuing past the quarter-year mark as political, economic and security crises loom large on the horizon. A democratic election, providing the opportunity for popular participation in forming a government, also helps build legitimacy for the government formed. But the harvest of legitimacy cannot be reaped out of a fraudulent election.

Afghanistan’s first round of its presidential election in April was not fully fraud-free but was peaceful and brought hopes of a brighter future during a period of antagonism between Karzai and the USA. This tension was mainly over the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) which is to form the basis of continued US military support. The hope was that a newly-elected President would sign the BSA to ease tensions and enable Afghans to avoid security risks.

After nearly half a year of a high-cost presidential election—one marred with fraud, a non-transparent audit and behind-the-scenes power-sharing consultations while insecurity and poverty engulf the country—the Afghan public has lost faith in the electoral process and democracy.

However, because no candidate won more than 50% of votes, a second round had to be held. This round, contested by Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, has been marred by extensive fraud. According to independent election monitoring organizations (Free and Fair Election Forum (FEFA) and Transparent Election Foundation (TEFA)), the campaign period also showed strong signs of ethnic divisions. Abdullah, of mixed Pashtun-Tajik heritage, is embraced by Tajiks and other ethnic groups supporting late Ahmad Shah Masoud, the leader of the Northern Alliance. Ghani, of Pashtun origin, is supported by Pashtuns (the largest ethnic community in Afghanistan). The provincial-level voting patterns of the second round also show that votes were ethnically divided.

A crisis emerged as Abdullah raised concerns about an “industrial-scale” fraud in the second round. Upon announcement of Ghani (the runner-up of the first round) as the winner, supporters of Abdullah (the winner of the first round) threatened an uprising. An internationally brokered arrangement emerged as the savior.  A full audit of the votes from all provinces and polling centers was accepted by Ghani and Abdullah; the audit was led by the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and observed by the UN and other international and national monitors (including candidates’ own). The audit process dragged on for weeks due to serious disagreements between Ghani’s and Abdullah’s observers, who were ultimately withdrawn.

Threats of another uprising resulted in yet another internationally-brokered agreement on the formation of a unity government to help build amity between the ethnic groups. The unity government would include the winner of the election and the runner-up (or his representative) would be a chief executive officer. The nature of such a government and powers of the President and the CEO were to be determined through a political process in parallel with the election audit (a process that basically consisted in a series of meetings between Ghani and Abdullah).

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The audit process is nearing completion and the IEC will soon be ready to announce results. But the Abdullah-Ghani talks are deadlocked, since the candidates cannot agree on the powers of the President and the CEO. In press conferences and interviews Ghani has indicated that despite his strong interest in unity building he would not agree with an unconstitutional power-sharing arrangement. The halt in talks is steering the country towards a political crisis and toward the ethnic conflict experienced in the pre-Taliban era of the civil war in Afghanistan. Such crisis will be unavoidable if the election results are announced before an agreement is reached on a unity government. Statements from FEFA and TEFA confirm this, and each has advised IEC not to announce the results yet.

The political impasse might be ended by international efforts—such as the recent visit by the Deputy Secretary General of the UN and the Secretary General’s calls to the candidates, Obama’s personal calls and Karzai’s appeals to the candidates. Acknowledging the international community’s good intentions, Abdullah maintains that there is yet no communication between his team and his rival.

Meanwhile, taking advantage of the political uncertainty, Taliban aggression is intensifying faster than ever before. The prolonged election process has sapped the morale and resolve of the Afghanistan Security Forces. Economic growth has reached a dangerous level of decline. Development in all sectors has been hampered as donors withhold funds. Unemployment continues to rise as development projects stop operating, and as shops and businesses close amid the departure of foreign troops (their major clientele). The US administration’s position is that unless a power-sharing unity government is formed, US financial assistance in all sectors will end. Other security and development donors are likely to follow suit.

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The only solution at this moment is a unity government; its absence will produce an uprising by the losing camp, ending in a civil war. Ultimately, Afghan electoral institutions and the international community would have to share responsibility for a failed election. The international community failed to anticipate the possibility of a deeply flawed and fraudulent election in a country with little experience in elections. Such extensive fraud could have been prevented or at least corrected during the audit. The complaint about industrial-scale fraud remains unaddressed.

Even if a unity government temporarily averts a political crisis, the legitimacy of a government established through a fraudulent process could be questioned in the long term. After nearly half a year of a high-cost presidential election—one marred with fraud, a non-transparent audit and behind-the-scenes power-sharing consultations while insecurity and poverty engulf the country—the Afghan public has lost faith in the electoral process and democracy.

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