Voters in Afghanistan turned out in record numbers on April 5th to elect a new president and provincial councils. Estimates put the voter turnout at nearly 60 percent. The high turnout was significant for many reasons — the top being people coming out of their homes despite Taliban threat and the exclusion of Afghan refuges in Pakistan from the voting process.
Many Afghan observers believe the denial of voting right to refugees in Pakistan, who were allowed to vote in the past, could mean a significant ethnic Pashtun voters having been disenfranchised. At least 1.5 million Afghan refugees, mostly ethnic Pashtuns, still live in Pakistan.
Except Taliban, all Afghan groups participated in the elections. Afghans have received international praise for defeating Taliban intimidation with their determination, paving the way for what is being billed as the nation’s first democratic transfer of power.
There are eight candidates in run to replace President Hamid Karzai. These include Zalmay Rassoul, former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah and former World Bank official Ashraf Ghani.
Under the Afghan Constitution, President Hamid Karzai is not permitted to run for a third term. However, he has been trying to stay relevant in Afghan politics even after he leaves the office. Despite a public posture of neutrality, he quietly supported Zalmai Rasoul. Afghan media reported before elections that Karzai convinced Qayum Karzai, his elder brother and a presidential candidate, to retire in favor Zalmai Rasoul.
Under Afghan election law, a candidate needs 50 percent of the vote to be declared a winner. Otherwise the top two finishing candidates will go for a runoff.
Election officials say results will be announced on April 24 but some analysts fear the final results could be in as late as mid-May. The next few weeks, thus, will be crucial for Afghanistan’s budding democratic process. Transparency and fairness in vote counting will be key to avoiding the repeat of 2009 disastrous and disputed election.
Social media played a key role in this year’s elections. From presidential candidates, especially Ashraf Ghani, to analysts and voters, every one used Twitter extensively for messaging and posting election-related photos. Ghani thanked voters and even claimed to be leading in the initial counting of the votes through his tweets.
“Initial partial results show we are leading,” Ghani Tweeted on Sunday (March 6), hours after election officials started counting the votes.
In fact Ghani’s own website offered the most detailed electoral landscape, better than that of the official Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, which seems to have not been updated for days.
The interactive data available on Ghani’s website shows him in clear lead over his rivals. If this unofficial data is to be believed, as of April 7, Ghani had a big lead over his closest rival Abdullah Abdullah with 26 percent of the unofficial results in.
According to public opinion poll conducted by consulting company ATR between March 19-26 and released on March 30th, Ghani and Abdullah were commanding lead over their rivals. If this poll is authentic, a clear winner bagging 50 percent of the vote, as required by Afghan law, may not emerge and a runoff between Ghani and Abdullah may be inevitable. But these are less scientific projections, which may have higher margin of error.
Challenges for new president
Whether the world will see Ashraf Ghani or Abdullah Abdullah as the next president, the challenges for the new Afghan leader will be the same. A weak economy, Taliban threat and the country’s immense dependence on foreign aid will be some of the many challenges for the new president. However, unlike Karzai the next president is more than likely to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States. Karzai dragged his feet on the BSA, which would allow the U.S. to station some of its troops in Afghanistan after 2014.
Afghanistan’s stability after the withdrawal of much of the foreign troops later this will be the biggest challenge for the new president. Economy will only improve when there is peace and stability in the country. And peace may be a challenge in the restive countryside, much of which is virtually under Taliban control.
Another challenge for the new Afghan leader will be his ability to keep the delicate ethnic balance in governance, especially in the military, which currently seems to be largely tilted in favor of ethnic minorities. The Pashtun share in the military and civil law enforcement agencies has remained an irritant for the Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group. Pashtuns are more than 42 percent of Afghanistan’s population.
Taliban will be the biggest beneficiaries if the new president, like Karzai, fails to rectify the ethnic imbalances in the government, helping them in their recruitment. In fact such imbalance could stoke a new period of chaos in the country.
Relations with neighbors and Afghan stability
Much will depend on the role of Afghanistan’s neighbors and international powers in its stability. Countries like Pakistan and Iran will have a key role. Kabul’s closeness to India and its relations with Pakistan will also shape up the course of Afghanistan’s stability.
Mutual suspicions and tensions between Kabul and Islamabad have increased in recent months. The Karzai government has shown unnecessary haste in blaming Pakistan for every act of terrorism that has been happening on its soil. In many cases, Afghan officials have not even waited for formal investigation into an incident and have pointed an accusing finger at Islamabad hours after some thing tragic happened. Islamabad has consistently rejected such charges.
On its part, Islamabad accuses Afghanistan of offering staging ground to India for operations inside Pakistan’s Balochistan province and the Taliban insurgency in FATA. Karzai government’s help and support to Pakistani Taliban is no longer a secret after the arrest of Latif Mehsud by U.S. forces in October 2013 while being transported to Kabul by his Afghan handlers. Latif’s boss Hakimullah Mehsud, Pakistan’s most wanted terrorist, was eliminated in a U.S. drone strike days after his arrest. It is widely believed that Hakimullah was taken out on the intelligence provided by Latif Mehsud. Reports of links between Pakistani Taliban’s new chief, Mullah Fazlullah, and senior officials in Afghan government have also been frequently making rounds.
Regional stability will be threatened if the blame game between the two continues after the departure of foreign troops. The new president would do well to rebuild Afghanistan’s largely fractured relations with Pakistan, its key business partner and transit corridor to the outside world.
The Pakistani establishment on its part will also have to revisit its failed policies of the past and make new efforts to regain trust and friendship with its western neighbor. It would be foolish to assume a stable Pakistan with an unstable Afghanistan in its neighborhood. Pakistan, thus, must realize its critical role in Afghanistan’s future and act more maturely. The illusion of strategic depth is already history with the rise of Pakistani Taliban.
Afghanistan’s own press is also showing guarded optimism about the future. In an editorial, Outlook Afghanistan noted: “Successful election has lessened much of people’s concern. Yet the future is uncertain.”
In another editorial, the same newspaper noted on April 6: “Through their votes, the Afghans have shown their will for a democratic government that is responsive to the demands of the people and can lead their country out of the severe challenges facing it. ANSF (Afghan National Security Forces) have performed better. Let us hope this election begins a new era of peace and prosperity for Afghans who have been suffering the worst consequences of war over the past three decades.”
Afghanistan’s mountain of challenges aside, the April 5 elections is a historic step in the right direction. It may prove to be the beginning of the end of long suffering of Afghan people. But much will depend on the performance of the new government and regional and international players. Democratic, transparent, corruption-free governance, a strong and unified military, a friendly neighborhood, successful intra-Afghan dialogue and the U.S.-lead international community’s support will play defining role in the future of Afghanistan.
The writer is a New York-based journalist.