The transition was generally speaking peaceful, by Afghan standards, but has been anything but democratic, even by those same standards. Former Finance Minister and Dean of Kabul University, as well as a high ranking official of the World Bank and a professor at many prestigious American universities, Ashraf Ghani is the new president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. However, no one can state with certainty to what extent electoral fraud contributed in determining the defeat of the challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah.
From the ballot box to political negotiations
Rather than the legitimate outcome of voting, the election of Ashraf Ghani is the result of lengthy and tiring political negotiations that lasted months. Immediately after the second ballot on June 14th, Abdullah Abdullah reported alleged fraud “at an industrial level” committed to his detriment with the complicity of a number of members of the independent electoral committee, who supposedly helped technocrat Ghani make up losses experienced in the first round of voting when, among the eight candidates, Abdullah Abdullah obtained 45% of the votes (2,970,000) and Ghani only 31.5% (about 2,000,000). When the preliminary results of the second round were announced, giving Ghani a million more votes than Abdullah, the former adviser to Commander Massud tried to force matters by mobilising his supporters, organising protests and picket lines on the streets of Kabul, while some members of his staff let the threatening idea of a parallel government be known, hence a country divided along ethnic lines (Tajiks versus Pashtuns), the prelude to another civil war.
In this manner Abdullah managed to obtain a recount, supervised by the United Nations, while the possibility of another conflict alarmed the White House and the State Department. On July 12th, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Kabul, where he immediately clarified matters. Without a political agreement, said Kerry, the United States would stop all forms of support, both financial and military, to Afghanistan, a country with an economy primarily based on international aid. On August 8th, Kerry returned to the Afghan capital and presided over a preliminary agreement for a national unity government. Between then and Saturday September 20th, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani quarrelled over the division of power. The first, convinced he was the victim of fraud, demanded more, while Ghani, certain he had been elected president, was unwilling to give up aspects of power. On Sunday, September 21st, they at last reached an understanding and signed a new final four-page agreement, supervised by Jan Kubis, (soon to be replaced by Nicholas Haysom) representing the United Nations mission in Afghanistan, the American Ambassador in Kabul, James Cunningham, and outgoing President Hamid Karzai. Facing the cameras they all stated their satisfaction; however, many uncertainties remain in spite of reassuring words spoken in public.
What a government of national unity envisages
The four pages signed by Abdullah and Ghani, carefully supervised by international partners, outline a precarious and anomalous institutional future because it is linked to a two-headed government. On paper the president remains the highest ranking authority in the country, but this agreement introduces a new institutional position, that of a Chief Executive Officer (CEO), to be appointed during the ceremony held to swear in the new president. This CEO will have the power usually attributed to a “prime minister.” While the president will preside over the government cabinet (Kabina), with the task of establishing strategic decisions, the CEO will preside over a new body, the Council of Ministers (Shura-e-Waziran), tasked with monitoring and implementing the cabinet’s decisions. Abdullah has also ensured that the most important appointments will be equally divided between the president and the “prime minister”. According to leaked information, the Interior and Finance ministers will be chosen by Ghani, while the Defence and Foreign ministers will be Abdullah’s choice. Political negotiation has therefore produced an experimental prototype of institutional engineering that reduces the short-term risks but may produce many in the future.
It is no coincidence that analysts are presenting a multitude of predictions. Some are betting that such a government will not last very long, subject to centrifugal forces even before being sworn in. Others instead, such as Scott Smith, director of programmes on Afghanistan and central Asia for the U.S. Institute of Peace, fear that this will end up “institutionalising the rivalry that has paralysed Afghanistan during recent months”, making it more difficult to implement governance reforms the country so desperately needs. Some are persuaded that Abdullah and Ghani’s political agendas are so different they are incompatible, all the more so in view of the end of enormous amounts of foreign financial aid, thanks to which, over the years, Karzai achieved internal political stability. Then there are those who remember that the most important challenge faced by the “Ghanidullah” government – as it has ironically been called – will be to regain the trust of voters.
In his first speech after his win was announced, Ghani emphasised that the agreement reached with Abdullah was not a simple division of power, that the exhausting negotiations had strengthened national unity and also excluded potential risks involving internal fragmentation. What will result as strengthened by months of discussions, fists on the table, nightlong debates, individual press conferences, is not national unity, but rather the disillusion of Afghans. Many went to vote to turn a page, to set aside the long parenthesis of the Karzai government, to demand stable and efficient institutions, invoking the primacy of an election and the people’s will over the palace agreements of a corrupt and predatory leadership. Months later, Afghans find themselves with a new government, but one that is the result of the most ancient and less noble forms of politics; the division of power, negotiated behind closed doors and imposed from afar.
Giuliano Battiston is a freelance journalist and researcher, reporting from Afghanistan, Asia and Middle East.He also writes about international politics and globalization.
Translated by Francesca Simmons