Afghanistan’s election quagmire

Afghanistan faces many challenges in the months ahead, but none are as critical as avoiding a presidential election crisis. And yet, as the country counts ballots from the second round of voting, allegations of fraud are growing louder. With the Taliban increasing its attacks, the Kabul government cannot be hobbled by a lack of leadership at the top.

Afghanistan has a two-round presidential election. In the first round, held in April, Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister and anti-Taliban resistance fighter who also led forces that battled the Soviet Union in the 1980s, came in first with 45 percent of the vote, a convincing 13-point margin over former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani, who came in second with 31.6 percent of the vote.

But since Abdullah could not claim an outright majority, a second round of balloting was held in June.

Counting that vote has been a slow process and the pace has fueled fears of ballot stuffing and vote fraud. On Monday, election officials seemed to validate those concerns when they announced preliminary results. With more than 8 million votes cast — a significant increase in ballots over the first round, despite many reports of abstentions among voters — Ghani was leading with 56.44 percent of the vote to Abdullah’s 43.56 percent, a margin of about 1 million votes. That tally represented a doubling of Ghani’s first round vote, from a little over 2 million votes in April to nearly 4.5 million in June.

Abdullah has charged systematic fraud by Ghani, and his team released audio recordings that reportedly backed the allegations. The official allegedly involved denied the charges but resigned immediately after the release of the recordings.

In numerous districts, tallies raised suspicions on both sides. The head of the election commission, Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, conceded that “we cannot deny fraud and violations in the process.”

The commission underscores that the results thus far “are by no means final” and that the fraud claims would be investigated. Abdullah’s running mate, Mohammed Mohaqeq, said his side would not accept the election results unless all fraudulent votes were discarded. The Abdullah campaign is asserting that as many as 2 million of the ballots cast — nearly one quarter — are fraudulent.

After negotiations among the parties mediated by the United Nations, the election review board, with help from the international community, has agreed to re-examine tallies from more than 7,000 of the 23,000 polling stations — totaling more than 3 million votes, enough to overturn the results. That is sure to enrage Ghani’s followers and could trigger demonstrations that Abdullah’s supporters had launched and then halted after the promise of an extensive review.

Afghanistan’s chief divisions are ethnic. Abdullah is of Pashtun and Tajik lineage, and draws most of his support from the Tajik communities in the north. Ghani is an ethnic Pashtun, whose support is strongest in the south and east. Outgoing President Hamid Karzai — barred by the constitution from serving another term — is also a Pashtun, and Ghani is seen as Karzai’s designated successor.

For most foreigners — and for many Afghans — the most important fact of this election was its conclusion: A new president was needed so that Karzai could leave office. Always mercurial, the outgoing president has become even more so as his departure date neared.

Karzai wanted to have a say in selecting his successor to retain his influence and that of his family; an open election would not guarantee the results he sought. Ignoring the support that the United States and its allies had provided him since he first took office, he preferred to focus on the complaints about the fairness of the electoral process and became convinced that the U.S. was hostile to him. Karzai railed against the Americans for plotting behind his back, undermining his authority and delegitimizing his government.

Angry that the U.S. had negotiated with the Taliban behind his back, he refused to sign an agreement with Washington that would allow U.S forces to remain in the country for two years to conduct training and counterterrorism operations.

The new president is scheduled to take office on Aug. 2. One of the first orders of business — no matter who wins — will be signing the security agreement with the U.S. All candidates have said they support the deal.

Such an agreement is looking increasingly important as Taliban forces accelerate the tempo of their operations. Insurgents hit government targets almost daily; on Monday, they killed five police officers in the western province of Herat.

This summer’s election was intended to mark the first democratic transition of power in Afghanistan’s history. There is fear that failure to ensure a fair electoral process could shatter the already fragile mosaic of modern Afghanistan. Some worry that a civil war could result.

If Abdullah and Ghani are genuine leaders and not just politicians, they will recognize the stakes and work to find a compromise that preserves the gains of the last decade and firms up a political framework for the future. That statesmanship is essential as friends of Afghanistan watch this process unfold and assess the value of their substantial investments in this country and its future.