The 2019 presidential election in Afghanistan was held at a time of great confusion in the country. Of the several areas of uncertainty, the most important is the future of American presence and the form it would take. It was not clear how Americans involvement that is about to enter its 19th year would unfold.
In a meeting held on December 5, 2001, in Bonn, Germany, after the defeat and collapse of the Taliban regime, a number of Western powers developed a programme for bringing democracy to Afghanistan. No nationally agreed-upon government had existed in the country since the 1979 invasion by the Soviet Union. The Bonn conferees agreed to have a transition period before a permanent government could be established. An Afghan Interim Authority made up of 30 members was to run the country for six months after which power would be handed for a period of two years to the Transitional Authority. There was the hope that the liberated country would be able to move towards a form of Western-style liberal political system.
A constitution was adopted by the Loya Jirga on January 4, 2004. It gave the country a presidential system with the head of the state elected every five years. The first election for the presidency was held in 2004 that elected Hamid Karzai to lead the country for five years. As required by the Constitution, another election was held in 2009 that brought Hamid Karzai back to power for his second term. The elections were corrupted. Karzai was accused by the United Nations of stealing the elections via ballot stuffing. Karzai was not permitted by the Constitution to run for the third term. The 2014 campaign was fought by new politicians — Ashraf Ghani, a Pakhtun, had served for a number of years at the World Bank and Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik. Abdullah did not accept the result claiming that the election was rigged in favour of his opponent. The impasse was resolved by the intervention of then United States secretary of state who came up with a power-sharing formula. Under this arrangement, Ghani became President while a new position — chief executive — was created for Abdullah. History was repeating itself in 2019.
For a time there was some doubt that the elections would even be held given that the Taliban were engaged in negotiations with the United States to find a resolution to the 18-year-old conflict. Even Washington indicated that it may be right for the elections to be postponed but President Ghani, looking for a fresh mandate, was keen on having his country go to the polls. Elections were held in September but it took more than two months for the results to be announced. In a solemn televised event, Hawa Alam Nuristani, the head of the election commission, read out the results for 13 candidates, putting Ghani just above the line needed not to hold a run-off poll. She was under a great deal of pressure; in one meeting while responding to criticisms she broke down and wept. She had good reasons to be worried; her predecessor and most of the election commissioners were in prison related to the unlawful mishandling of the parliamentary vote last year.
According to the election commission, Ghani received 934,868 votes with 720,099 for Abdullah. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former Islamist militia leader who had fought against the Russians in the 1980s, came in third with 70,243 votes. Rahmatullah Nabil, who had served Ghani as his national security adviser was a distant fourth with 33,932 votes. Ghani’s share was 50.64% while that of Abdullah was 39.5%. The turn-out was vey low. The election commission first said nearly 2.7 million people had voted in the nation of 35 million people. But a month later it revised the turnout to 1.8 million. The commission decided to recount votes from 8,000 polling stations — nearly a third of the 26,000 nationwide.
However, the Abdullah camp was not satisfied. It claimed that 15% of votes were counted without transparency. It said that that would refer 300,000 votes to the Election Complaints Commission for recount, a last step in the vetting process before a final winner is declared. For the process to be completed may take several months.
Ghani went on the television and gave a triumphal speech. Addressing all citizens, he pledged that his administration would ensure equal rights for all citizens, build a strong Afghan state, and bring Afghanistan “to light from ambiguity” and “to unity from division” after 40 years of conflict. Some of the senior people from foreign missions urged caution before declaring the results to be final. John Bass, the United States Ambassador, tweeted that “it’s important for all Afghans to remember that these results are preliminary. Many steps remain before final results are certified, to ensure the Afghan people have confidence.” Tadamichi Yamamoto, the United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan, was similarly cautious. “All Afghan authorities and actors must demonstrate their commitment to safeguard and complete the election.” He went on to advise that candidates should raise their concerns through the formal process and officials must deal with them “transparently and thoroughly to ratify the election in a credible manner.” These comments suggested that President Ghani had jumped the process by delivering a victory speech.
It is hard to say at this time in which direction Afghanistan will turn after the elections. The most difficult part of governance is widespread corruption that has disillusioned people about the system brought by foreigners who got involved after the end-2001 invasion of the country with the United States in the lead. There is consensus among those who have watched the country from close quarters that corruption was inevitable when massive amounts of money flowed in and in which institutions did not exist that could make proper use of the funds. The US government has spent more than $133 billion in aid. Pamela Constable, who has spent years living in and reporting on Pakistan and Afghanistan for The Washington Post, sat down with Karzai and interviewed the former president about his views of the “Afghanistan Papers”. These are the documents the newspaper was able to get from the government after winning an “information access” case in the courts. According to Karzai “the pivotal incident in this narrative was his attempt in 2008 to ban all Afghan companies from obtaining U.S. security contacts after realizing that huge sums were ending up in individual pockets. He said that he came under ‘huge pressure’ from U.S. and British officials to allow the contracts to continue but he insisted on carrying out the ban.” Corruption continues to corrupt creating disillusionment about any system of governance other than the one on offer from the Taliban.
Published in The Express Tribune, December 30th, 2019.