The early euphoria which had come to mark the first phase of the Afghan Presidential Elections had long since evaporated by the time the final results were announced on 21 September. The elections were meant to herald a peaceful and democratic political transition for the first time in the country’s history. However, the protracted process, the wide spread electoral fraud and squabbling among the candidates has ensured that the political transition has been a contentious one.
In a country where the perceived legitimacy of the government is extremely important for its stability, the start has been anything but auspicious.
The image of both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has been seriously damaged during the course of the electoral process. Both have been seen by their opponents as beneficiaries through unfair means.
Dr Ghani has been forced for months to contend against allegations of orchestrating “industrial scale” fraud through the use of state institutions. Dr Abdullah and his team, in the meanwhile, have been criticised for using the threat of boycott and street protests to get his way.
Even the agreement between the two to form a government of national unity – as per which the winner will be declared president and the other candidate the chief executive officer – has been criticised for being extra constitutional and for going against the principles of democracy. The agreement ensures that even the losing candidate, and his supporters, are accommodated in the new system. The persistent efforts of Dr Abdullah’s team, in the past few weeks, to secure as much power for the CEO’s post as possible could be seen as a pre-emptive measure on their part to secure their interests.
It is far from certain how the Afghan populace in general, which took considerable risks to vote during both phases of the elections, will perceive this arrangement. A lack of legitimacy of the new leadership in Kabul in the eyes of the Afghan public could pose potential problems for it at a time when it is confronted with a number of challenges.
This could be exploited by the Taliban as well. It has already issued a statement condemning the elections as a “sham” and the two leaders as “US employees in Kabul”. This has been consistent with their past criticism of the elections as well, which they have rejected as a “waste of time” and an unrepresentative process. The Taliban have, in the past, denounced Hamid Karzai as a western stooge and used that as a pretext on multiple occasions to reject the overtures made by his government. It is possible that the group could adopt a similar position against the new leadership as well.
While both Dr Ghani and Dr Abdullah indicated during their campaigns that they are willing to engage with the Taliban, there seems to be no compelling factor at the moment to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The military balance has not shifted in favour of the Afghan security forces, which have witnessed a sharp increase in casualties this year. With the Taliban’s ability to launch high profile attacks and the foreign troops set to depart from the region within the next few months, the possibility for the new government to achieve a breakthrough with the insurgents anytime soon seems remote.
Besides the legitimacy of the government, there are concerns about how well the power sharing agreement between the two leaders will work. Dr Abdullah’s demand that the CEO not be reduced to a ceremonial position and there be a degree of parity between the two positions has been accepted. However, the president still remains the most powerful person in the country and will have the final word on all key issues. A smooth functioning of the government then depends on the level of cooperation between the two leaders.
It is also important to note that this power-sharing arrangement is not provided for by the constitution but was specially created to break the political deadlock. This means that its resilience will largely depend, besides the degree of cooperation, on how far Dr Ghani is perceived by the other camp to be fulfilling the terms of the agreement. There is thus always the danger that any major disagreement or attempt by the president to expand his powers or deviate from the agreement could provoke Dr Abdullah or his supporters to walk out of the government.
The agreement between the two leaders has ensured that Afghanistan finally has a new president and the country can move on from what has been a long-drawn out process. The deal between the two leaders was necessary to bring the process to an end and to prevent the situation spiralling out of control. At the same time, the deal itself has created challenges for the new leadership, which if not dealt with appropriately can create further problems in the long run.