Preliminary poll results have returned President Ghani to power but have been challenged by his rival. What questions does it raise over the next government’s stability, with or without US-Taliban talks?

Since December 22, Afghanistan has been debating the preliminary results of its election. Amid this uncertainty, the Taliban were reported to have agreed on Sunday to a temporary ceasefire in Afghanistan, before they denied these reports on Monday. A look at the controversial election, and what a Taliban ceasefire and US withdrawal — if that happens — could mean for Afghanistan:

Why is there uncertainty about results of the election?

The results announced on December 22 gave President Ashraf Ghani 50.64 per cent of the 18,24,401 votes counted which means a second-round runoff would not be required); he managed to cross the halfway mark by fewer than 12,000 votes. His main rival, Abdullah Abdullah, polled 7,20,990 votes or 39.52 per cent, and was in second place.

But these are “preliminary” results. The elections were held on September 28. The preliminary results were scheduled to be declared on October 18, and the final results on November 7. The schedule could not be kept as the Independent Election Commission (IEC) of Afghanistan undertook an “audit and recount” process in 8,255 polling stations, later increased to 8,494 polling stations, for the following reasons: a discrepancy between votes cast on the basis of Biometric Voter Verification, and the paper trail at these polling stations; missing paper trail or “result sheets”; and other irregularities.

The recount and audit went slowly. Abdullah wanted 3 lakh votes invalidated (including over 1 lakh cast after polling hours and nearly 1.5 lakh set aside initially because of various suspected irregularities) and 2,423 polling stations excluded from the count. His supporters led street protests in many provinces and succeeded in getting the process suspended for a few days in November. The IEC has been accused of siding with Ghani.           

Abdullah has declared that he does not accept the “fraudulent result” declared without excluding the 3 lakh “unclean” votes. He has equated the damage caused by the result to that caused by a suicide bombing.

Other candidates, including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have also opposed the result. Hekmatyar, the head of Hizb-e-Islami, who got 70,247 votes (3.85 per cent), has denounced the results as “false” and accused the IEC of “stealing” votes cast for him.

So, what happens now?

The final results may be declared only towards the end of January. The Election Complaints Commission has received 16,500 complaints, of which 8,000 are from the Abdullah camp. Ghani’s side has filed 3,000 complaints. If Abdullah’s complaints are rejected, Ghani will be declared the winner.

If the Commission takes on board Abdullah’s concerns, especially about the invalidity of a large chunk of votes, it would bring down Ghani’s vote count and pave the way for a second round runoff between the top two contenders — a runoff takes place when no candidate secures a simple majority. Neither scenario promises the formation of a stable government.

Why will the government not be stable?

Abdullah has already pledged that he will not allow “rootless fraudsters to rule over Afghanistan”. This is deja vu — in 2014 a contested result after the second round had to be resolved by then US Secretary of State John Kerry, who flew in to hold talks with both Ghani and Abdullah. The two men then came together in a National Unity Government. Ghani became President and Abdullah was given the newly created role of Chief Executive.

Both Ghani and Abdullah have rejected another national unity government. Ghani has said the country “needs one President, not two”, and the idea was no more acceptable to him. Abdullah believes he was cheated out of becoming President twice earlier — before 2014, he had been narrowly defeated by Hamid Karzai in 2009. And the US, keen to hightail it out of Afghanistan, is focused on reviving the talks with the Taliban that President Donald Trump called off abruptly in September.

A second round may only bring more uncertainty as it did in 2014. The losing side is sure to see the electoral process itself as compromised.

Besides the low turnout — out of 9.6 million registered voters, the IEC pegged it at 2.8 million, but later revised it to 1.8 million — the election has thrown up a sharp regional divide. A vote map of the country’s 34 provinces put out by the IEC shows that Ghani, a Pashtun, has won all the southern provinces, while Abdullah, of mixed Tajik-Pashtun ethnicity from the northeastern province of Panjshir, has won all the non-Pashtun northern provinces. If Abdullah and Ghani were partners in government, they would be seen as a bridge over the divide; as rivals, they would make it look dire.

Where do the Taliban and their talks with the US figure in all this?

That is a big part of the uncertainty. In September, President Donald Trump had called off a talks process after nine formal rounds that began in January 2019. Zalmay Khalilzad, the US Special Envoy on Afghanistan, said just before the cancellation that the two sides had finalised an agreement that only required the President’s signature.

As abruptly, during an unannounced Thanksgiving Day trip to Afghanistan on November 28 to meet US troops, Trump declared talks with the Taliban were on again. Ten days before this announcement, the Taliban released an American and an Australian who were teaching at the American University in Kabul, and had been taken captive in 2016. In an apparent exchange, the Afghan government released Anas Haqqani, brother of the Haqqani group leader Sirajuddin Haqqani, and two Taliban militants.

From December 7 to 12, Khalilzad met with Taliban representatives in Qatar again, just as he had until September. Just a day before this round of talks ended, the Taliban carried out a 12-hour attack at the Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. The attack began with a car bomb, after which gunmen entered a medical facility. Two Afghan civilians were killed and 73 were injured. Just before the talks began, the Taliban carried out another deadly attack, this time on a security post in Kunduz, killing 11 Afghan soldiers. There were several other bombings and other violent attacks during the rest of December that killed civilians, Afghan soldiers and militants.

There have been no formal talks since. On Monday, the Taliban denied reports that they were ready to call a ceasefire in preparation for an agreement with the US on withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. “The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (the name by which the Taliban call themselves) has no ceasefire plans”, the Taliban said in a statement. The Taliban’s refusal to commit themselves to a ceasefire has been the main reason why President Ghani, other politicians and Afghan civil society have been filled with disquiet and dread about the US-Taliban talks.

Is there a chance that the new government will be included in the US-Taliban process?

It is unlikely. The Taliban have said they do not recognise the elections and have denounced all governments in Kabul as “puppets” of the US. The US kept the previous government out of the talks that ended in September, in deference to the Taliban’s wishes. There isn’t a new government in Kabul yet. Going by Khalilzad’s statements during the pre-September talks, dialogue between the Taliban and Afghan “representatives” (not government), would follow a US-Taliban agreement, and it would be for this “intra-Afghan” dialogue to discuss the road-map ahead, including perhaps a ceasefire. Back in September, the imminent US-Taliban agreement had cast uncertainty on the election itself. There was a view that the election would serve no purpose, and that instead, the “intra-Afghan dialogue” should negotiate the setting up of an interim government that would include Taliban representatives.

The cancellation of the US-Taliban process meant there was no more talk about not holding the election. Ghani, who had been determined from the start that the democratic exercise should not be disrupted, hoped he would return with a strong mandate, which in turn would help him face the Taliban with a better hand. But his slender majority from a low turnout, and the contested result may not help. If the election goes into a second round, a new government would potentially take months to form, raising the possibility that the US-Taliban talks may even conclude in an agreement before that, presenting the new dispensation with a changed ground situation in which its own role may be reshaped by circumstances outside its control.

Source: The Indian Express

Relevant for GS Prelims & Mains Paper II; Polity & Governance