Many Afghans are scratching their heads trying to make sense of what has just happened in their country. What, some ask, was the point of the all-absorbing, expensive and divisive electoral exercise that has dominated the past six months?
On Sunday the Afghan independent election commission declared Ashraf Ghani, former finance minister, the winner of the presidential elections. On the same day an agreement was signed between him and his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, former foreign minister, to establish a government of national unity.
The agreement promises to reduce the political uncertainty that has recently plagued Afghanistan. And the country can claim to have undergone its first peaceful democratic transition of power – a major achievement.
The deal has been hailed by the US, the Europeans and neighbouring countries as a breakthrough, an essential step towards stability. Unsurprisingly, it has been denounced by the Taliban who view the elections as a sham and describe Ghani as 'the new handpicked US employee in Kabul'.
The focus will now be on whether the deal will hold, how senior posts will be allocated, and how the new government will work to deliver on promises made during the campaign.
But the sense of relief, and the buzz around what the new president will do, is tinged by perplexity about what has happened, the implications for the future, and the relevance of elections.
The second round in June gave Ghani 56.4 per cent of the votes. This prompted accusations of massive fraud from the opposing camp. It was swiftly followed by what was effectively an exercise in conflict prevention: an audit of all 8m votes.
The audit was described by the UN as 'unprecedented in international electoral practice' and unique in terms of its scale and depth. Its results have not been officially released. This was at the insistence of the Abdullah camp on the grounds that it would trigger violence, presumably as it shows that he lost by a substantial margin – as much as 45 per cent to 55 per cent. The agreement pre-empts the audit. The text reflects Ghani’s insistence upon constitutional rectitude while accommodating conflicting interests.
It includes the creation by presidential decree of a post of chief executive officer, which Abdullah can fill, answerable to the president but with specific executive responsibilities; a loya jirga or assembly to consider the creation of a prime ministerial post; a constitutional review; electoral reform including issuance of electronic national ID cards to Afghan citizens; future elections including at the district level; and an understanding as to how senior officials will be chosen.
For the US and its allies, the deal provides a basis for continued support to Afghanistan, not least to preserve the economic and security gains made at enormous expense, both human and financial, over the past decade. From Obama downwards, the US has invested significant political capital in making it happen.
The dividend could be substantial. Both candidates have agreed to sign a bilateral security agreement with the US, required for Nato to honour financial commitments to 2017, which may be more significant than the security support that accompanies it. The new government needs help to face a series of interlocking crises, the most pressing of which is financial.
Political uncertainty has badly dented business confidence and activity. Domestic revenues are dropping as economic growth and customs revenues have contracted. Major drains include capital flight, illicit economic activity, corruption and assets stolen as a result of the Kabul Bank fraud. As the prospect of civil servants going unpaid looms, the government is seeking $537m (£330m) in emergency funding from donors.
Overhanging everything are mounting levels of violence as the Taliban encroach upon a number of provincial capitals and penetrate Kabul. The six months since the first round have seen mounting civilian and security force casualties.
The prospect of a political process involving the Taliban is very uncertain. Ghani says his government believes in reconciliation as the only path to peace. Given Obama’s plan to remove all US combat troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, Taliban hardliners will argue that time is on their side. The Iraq experience may increase pressure on him at home to pursue a conditions-based rather than calendar-based withdrawal.
Sunday’s agreement and the formation of a national unity government mark the end of the Karzai era. They should allow the incoming president to set a new agenda – to tackle the financial, economic and security crises, and to take steps that meet popular expectations including on the rule of law and corruption. It can be the occasion to reboot international partnerships, whether with the US or with regional actors such as China, India, Iran and Pakistan.
But this opportunity has been gained at a high price: the reputation of elections. The first round was celebrated as a powerful expression of popular will and national sovereignty. The second round and its audit were used to achieve what many thought elections were supposed to displace – closed-door deal-making by the political elite.
Hence the disappointment. It may take a long time to repair the damage.
This article was originally published in the Guardian
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