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Solution to Afghan election crisis lies in elite power-broking

Preliminary election results released on July 7 put Ashraf Ghani as winner of the Afghan presidential poll. Jawad Jalali/EPA

Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan finance minister, is leading the race to replace Hamid Karzai as president of Afghanistan, according to the preliminary results announced on July 7 by the Independent Election Commission (IEC). Ghani won 56.44% of the June 14 runoff vote, while his opponent Abdullah Abdullah secured 43.56% of the vote.

But the Afghan election crisis is far from over. The excitement of the first round, in which over seven million Afghans (an unprecedented 60% of the voter population) came out to participate in the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected leader to another, has been overshadowed by accusation of mass fraud and vote-rigging.

The 2014 presidential elections is vital for Afghanistan’s political stability and its very survival after the end of the year. Most of the international troops are expected to withdraw from Afghanistan by the end of 2014.

James F. Dobbins, the United States special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, who is retiring, described the current situation a “serious” impasse that could present a real danger of a division in the country. The credibility and legitimacy of the election institutions have also been seriously undermined.

Allegtions of fraud

The Abdullah Abdullah camp is convinced that Karzai – who could not stand again for another term under the constitution – and the electoral bodies are conspiring to deny him the presidency. Abdullah’s mistrust has roots in the 2009 election when he was running against Karzai, in which the Election Complaints Commission found over one million of Karzai’s votes to be fraudulent. He pulled out of the run-off.

Now, the Abdullah team has accused his opponent and the IEC of orchestrating an “industrial scale fraud” in the second-round run-off in Ghani’s favour. They claim that up to 2m votes cast are fraudulent.

Over the past two weeks, the Abdullah campaign has publicly released audiotapes allegedly exposing Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, the former IEC secretariat chief, of plotting to stuff ballots during the runoff with members of Ghani’s team. Amarkhail stepped down from his position, although he denies any wrongdoing. The Abdullah camp claims that if the clean votes are separated from the fraudulent ones, he is the winner.

Abdullah Abdullah has rejected the election results amid allegations of fraud. Jawad Jalali/EPA

The political network surrounding Abdullah, who is half Tajik and half Pashtun and drew most of his suppport from the Tajik of northern Afghanistan, remains powerful. It includes the strongman Atta Mohammad Noor, the governer of the strategic province of Balkh in the North. Also in Abdullah’s camp are ethno-regional leaders like Mohammad Mohaqqeq, a former presidential candidate, who delivered 80% of the ethnic Hazara vote for Abdullah in the first round, and the former chief of Afghan intelligence, Amrullah Saleh. Since the announcement of the preliminary results, they have threatened to establish a “parallel government”.

Ghani, on the other hand, who is Pashtun and a former professor at John Hopkins university, already sees himself as the winner but has publicly announced that he will await the announcement of final results. He has since suggested a reconciliatory approach by asking the first vice-president, Younus Qanuni, an ethnic Tajik from Panjshir valley, to mediate negotiation between him and Abdullah’s team. Ghani’s team has expressed a desire to form an inclusive government.

A political legacy built on deal-making

The current intensification of political tensions and the rhetoric of fear and threat offered by both camps – Abdullah’s in particular – is yet another grand moment of horse-trading.

Afghanistan’s political development has been shaped by patterns of deal-making and coalition-building and opportunistic behaviour by elites. In the early 19th century, Mountstuart Elphinstone, the first British envoy to Afghanistan, made an interesting observation about the dynamics of power amongst the Afghan rulers. In his 1809 book, the Account of the Kingdom of Cabul and its dependencies in Persia and India, he noted that war among the Afghan Durrani rulers was often won without much bloodshed but by contesters winning the largest coalition of tribal and ethnic and tribal groups onto their side.

In this vein, for the Afghan elite, the 2014 elections are an excellent opportunity to re-position themselves, and assemble a government that could guarantee their interests. The current confusion highlights the paradoxical nature of Afghan politics: both highly fluid at times of uncertainty, as well as inherently rigid.

Since the 2001 international intervention, the main jihadi leaders and powerbrokers have come to constitute a state in which they and their clientele control strategic parts of the Afghan state and the economy including its army and police through a system of patronage, opportunistic practices and corruption. The empowered elites have benefitted from this system, which they helped build, with the intention of guaranteeing their long-term interests.

The ethno-regional leaders and their clientele are dependent on each other’s political and financial resources and power. An investigation into the corruption of the largest bank in Afghanistan, the Kabul Bank, in 2009, revealed how the bank had become a virtual Ponzi scheme for Afghan elites.

The power dynamics of these political networks and centres of power have locked them into a system where sustaining the status quo seems the best outcome. To destabilise the system is essentially to destabilise their financial and political gains.

Karzai’s role is crucial

As such, a power-sharing arrangement seems an ideal outcome to resolve the current crisis. There have been behind-the-scenes negotiations between the main candidates and the international donors involving, UNAMA, international ambassadors, US officials – including US secretary of state John Kerry and the German special envoy Michael Koch – and vice-president Qanuni.

Amid all this, Karzai still remains the most important player in the current crisis. All depends on how he plays it. He has emerged as the strongest player in mediation. He has been successful in post-2001 Afghanistan because of his ability to maintain the balance between competing networks and centres of power, acting as the gatekeeper.

Because of this, Karzai is still the most likely to negotiate a deal between the candidates. But in return, he is likely to want a significant level of influence within the next administration, such as the power to appoint ministers and governors. The coming weeks will determine how this power bargaining will affect the political process in Afghanistan.

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