Salvaging Afghanistan’s Presidential Election and Transition

As a fallback “Plan B” but also to intensify pressure on ensuring all ballots are now properly vetted, the Afghan Government and international community should consider organizing another runoff between Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and Dr. Ashraf Ghani, according to Dr. Richard Ponzio, head of the Global Governance Program at The Hague Institute for Global Justice. Do it before the snow hits the Hindu Kush and have it co-supervised by the United Nations. Only then will an emerging democratic Afghanistan have a decent chance of succeeding.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s latest return to Kabul to try to resolve Afghanistan’s escalating political crisis is a timely step in the right direction. Despite earlier announcements by the Independent Electoral Commission of Afghanistan to work with the country’s Independent Electoral Complaints Commission to remove fraudulent votes during the second round of the country’s presidential election, the credibility and legitimacy of the electoral process was waning fast for both the Afghans and their international partners.

The Kerry brokered agreement by the two competing candidates, former Afghan Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah and former Afghan Finance Minister Dr. Ashraf Ghani, to have international observers, along with observers from each campaign, preside over the inspection of all 8 million ballots cast is, therefore, a welcome development.

The new plan, which extends beyond an earlier UN proposal (rejected by the Abdullah camp) to conduct an audit of votes from 8,000 polling stations – or around only 43% of all ballots cast, will take several weeks to implement. To succeed, the final results will require acceptance by both presidential candidates. In addition, the winning presidential candidate is expected to form a national unity government by appointing either the losing candidate, or his nominee, to serve as the country’s “chief executive”, a post that is expected to gradually transform, following Constitutional amendment, into the role of prime minister (as head of government) with the president serving as head of state. Together, these two steps could reduce political uncertainty and refocus attention toward Afghanistan’s critical 2014 Transition and subsequent (2015-2024) Transformation Decade goals.

Every effort should now be made to realize the aims of this new way forward, particularly as it seeks to ensure a more inclusive form of governance befitting this fragile country with multiple ethnic and regional fault lines. At the same time, given the severity of the political crisis, the high level of mistrust of the electoral process and between the opposing camps, and need to intensify pressure on ensuring that all ballots are now properly vetted, a further extraordinary, yet responsible option merits consideration: to declare the second round inconclusive and to hold a third round election, jointly organized this time by the Afghan Government and United Nations with a heavy emphasis on election monitoring.

With the transition to Afghan-led security nearing completion as NATO-led foreign forces drawdown, Afghanistan faces another critical crossroad. A smooth political transition – and the first democratic handover in the country’s history – would help to cement the country’s security transition and to create conditions for a negotiatedsettlement between the warring factions. A change in the head of state viewed as illegitimate by many Afghans and friends of Afghanistan, however, could have the opposite effect and empower the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and their allies.

Given the high stakes, the current political impasse between the camps supporting Dr. Abdullah and Dr. Ghani requires outside assistance in reaching a commitment to conclude the electoral process in a fair, transparent, and mutually agreeable manner. The challenge now is for all ballots cast during the June 14 runoff to be carefully inspected and, upon completion, for the final results to be deemed credible and legitimate by Afghanistan’s leaders and its citizens. In lieu of this ideal scenario where the auditing process, and subsequent acceptance of the results, still face significant risks, the Afghan Government and United Nations may need to convene another, legally defensible runoff election prior to the initial mid-October snowfall in the Hindu Kush.

Though the recommendation to convene another round may appear as radical, from a practical point of view to, and more importantly, a political standpoint, the proposal merits consideration for the following reasons:

First, Afghans trust direct UN political support.

Based on a national opinion survey, focus groups, and more than 100 interviews for my research on Democratic Peacebuilding in Afghanistan[RP5] , I concluded that a far majority of Afghans welcome direct United Nations involvement in the building of democratic institutions that remain sensitive to Islamic values and Afghan culture. Compared to subsequent elections, for example, Afghanistan’s 2004 presidential and 2005 parliamentary elections, co-organized with direct UN supervision and technical support, were viewed in a more favorable light by most Afghans and international partners, as UN staff were seen as impartial and technically capable.

Second, the costs incurred by the international community would be far less than earlier investments, as well as the cost of inaction.

While donor countries may raise concerns about the price tag of a third round, especially at a time of both rising donor fatigue and fiscal austerity back home, the estimated USD $200-$300 million required pales in comparison to the more than $100 billion spent annually in recent years on military and economic assistance. Holding a successful third round will demonstrate to anti-Afghan government forces the resilience of Afghan Islamic democracy as a mechanism for conflict management and governance, while avoiding the need for the U.S. and key allies to follow-through on punitive measures, such as suspending critical military and economic aid, during the country’s fragile transition if, as currently indicated, one presidential candidate were to take unilateral action. It would also ensure continued respect for and influence of the international community to shape events on the ground.

Finally, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s legacy and the political viability of his successor require a credible and legitimate electoral outcome.

Admittedly, under the present circumstances, many are questioning the sincerity of President Karzai to his stated commitment to not interfere in the presidential election. However, he too has an interest in ending the political crisis; in the unfortunate event that the current outside-brokered plan breaks down and fails to deliver an acceptable outcome, the pressure will grow to consider a way forward that both saves face politically and ensures, at least initially, that the newly elected president – despite myriad complex challenges to his rule – can govern from a relative position of strength. At the same time, it should be stressed, once again, that the idea of another runoff (which itself would face new logistical, security, and political challenges) should only be discussed, at present, as a means to intensify pressure on ensuring that all ballots are now properly vetted this month.

The Afghan people and their political elite know that the country cannot afford an extended period of political uncertainty and national disunity. Similarly, with continued violence and instability in the Middle East and Ukraine, the international community – and particularly the West – cannot afford a significant political or military setback in Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s presidential election is only one step in a longer process to realize the goals of the country’s 2014 Transition and subsequent Transformation Decade. But if the country is to slowly rid itself of terrorism and other international and local threats, it is a necessary step that must be seen through to proper completion. Time is running short.

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