Allegations of election fraud are the most recent factor of a looming political crisis that seeks to undermine and raise the stakes for Afghanistan’s stability and transition into a viable democracy after decades of bloodshed and violence. Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah and his team rejected preliminary results of the June 14th run-off election, citing extensive fraud as a “coup against people’s votes,” drawing concern from the international community of a potential fracturing of the fragile Afghan political system.
Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) on Monday announced that in the preliminary tally Dr. Ashraf Ghani, a former World Bank economist and Afghan finance minister, secured 56 percent of the vote, while Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a prominent anti-Taliban fighter in the 90s and foreign affairs minister, won 43 percent. That marks a reversal in fortune for the latter, as in the first round, Abdullah maintained a lead in the first round with 45 percent of the votes to Ghani’s 31 percent. IEC Chairman Ahmad Nuristani has stressed that tallies are not final and a thorough audit process could change the final vote count.
In the weeks preceding the announcement, the IEC missed its original July 2nd deadline due to heightened concerns of fraud. In response, Abdullah and his team orchestrated a thorough campaign to weed out fraud, gathered thousands of supporters in street protests, and released records of phone conversations between IEC Secretary Amarkhail and Ghani campaign members which led to Amarkhail’s resignation.
As close watchers of Afghan politics expected a preliminary Ghani victory announcement, what was not expected was the record turnout in the run-off: approximately 8.1 million, 1.5 million more than the April 5th first round, and much more than 5 million estimated by independent observers. Ghani’s team claimed that outreach to religious clerics, women and enabling easier polling station access for rural areas were key to securing the 2 million votes he picked up — which in itself has heightened concern over fraud and calls for a deeper audit of the votes cast.
Thousands of supporters have called on Abdullah to form his own parallel government, with Abdullah responding that this “is a demand from the people of Afghanistan [and he] cannot ignore this call” and that he would consult with his advisers and make an announcement in a few days. Though an adviser to Abdullah told the BBC on Tuesday “we don’t believe in setting up parallel government,” the candidate’s comments were still met with sharp concerns. Secretary of State John Kerry declared there was no justification for “extra-constitutional measures” and will be meeting with key parties on Friday, July 11th.
The U.S. government underscored this sentiment stating that any action that would alter constitutional legalities could result in Afghanistan losing the financial and security support of the United States and the international community. This would plunge Afghanistan into a deep economic and security crisis as foreign aid constitutes for over 95 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP and in 2013, government revenues accounted for less than $2.5 billion of that year’s $7 billion adopted budget.
A fractured election that is seen as illegitimate by Afghans has the potential to splinter the country along ethnic lines: Afghanistan’s ethnic make-up is 42 percent Pashtun and 27 percent Tajik. While both candidates are steadfast against allowing ethnic undertones to permeate the race, Afghanistan has never had a non-Pashtun leader, from the centuries of monarchic rule to the Taliban to President Karzai. If the ethnic allegiances weigh towards one bloc heavily over the other, the next president will have trouble coalescing the country under a national mandate resulting in an ethnically fragmented Afghanistan which could provide a ripe environment for a worst case scenario of expanded civil war.
The current political situation has dampened any hope for a smooth transition in Afghanistan as United States and international counterparts aim to conclude its combat mission by the end of this year with a new timetable to withdraw the last American troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. Even as the candidates jostle for control of the presidency, the country and its security forces are still battling Taliban insurgency with the latest suicide bombing killing sixteen people, including four NATO soldiers, in Eastern Afghanistan. Sustaining the U.S.’ military presence to help in this fight still hinges on whether the Afghan government signs the Bilateral Security Agreement, which President Hamid Karzai has refused to a sign despite the November Loya Jirga convening of 3,000 Afghan political, religious, and civil society leaders who overwhelmingly endorsed the BSA. Both Abdullah and Ghani have agreed to sign BSA as their first order of business in order to sustain the partnership between the United States and Afghanistan.
In the end, Afghanistan’s leaders must work within the boundaries of the Constitution and cooperate with the governmental, electoral, and international institutions to secure that the gains made in a country that just two decades was under Taliban rule. To do otherwise invites the risk of a splintering like that seen in the 1990s, after the Soviet Union’s retreat, that first allowed the Taliban to gain power in the first place.
Aarthi Gunasekaran is a Research Assistant with the National Security and International Policy team at the Center for American Progress.