With the announcement in Kabul of a power-sharing government between the two presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, the Afghan election comes closer to a resolution. What is missing, however, is an actual result. The “national unity government” was one part of a deal brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry back in July, when preliminary official results gave Ghani a massive victory, and Abdullah threatened to pull out of the process, claiming massive fraud had taken place. After two months of an audit overseen by the UN, when every ballot box was re-examined—something unprecedented in electoral history—a final result was reached. The result was given last week in secret to the candidates, but not to the public.
This is a pity. Millions of people voted in both rounds of the presidential election, on April 5 and June 14. The pre-election campaign rallies were attended by tens of thousands of people. As post-election press accounts revealed, they voted consciously and in favor of the current constitutional and democratic system. In many places, voters seemed to defy local power brokers and vote for the candidate they wanted. It seemed that for the first time the Afghan voter was emerging as an independent actor.
When Abdullah, who had won the first round, appeared to have lost the second round, his supporters began rattling sabers, threatening to secede or to take the presidential palace by force. These threats rattled the Obama administration, and Kerry rushed to Kabul to negotiate a deal between the two candidates.
Fraud undoubtedly took place, as it has in the past. In order to remedy the fraud, the most comprehensive audit in democratic history took place. What surprised observers was that little evidence of massive, one-sided fraud was discovered. The audit suggested that the election was much cleaner than was assumed, and it was possible that Ghani won legitimately.
Ghani’s team claims that, apart from an effective get-out-the-vote effort, the ethnic Pashtun population in particular mobilized around his candidacy. In the first round, where eight candidates ran, the Pashtun vote was split among seven of them. When the Afghan constitution was being drafted, Western advisors recommended that if a presidential system of government was selected, it should ensure that the president wins with a majority and not a plurality of votes. This was why the two-round system was chosen. But now Western officials seem surprised that the system worked as intended.
Abdullah’s camp, refusing to accept defeat, have argued that the fraud was too sophisticated to be detected by audit. His supporters have claimed that the United Nations colluded with the electoral commission to skew the audit. Last week hundreds of Abdullah supporters demonstrated outside of the UN office in Kabul, claiming that the UN colluded with the Ghani camp to rig the results.
The UN actually played a positive role, having been saddled with the almost impossible task of sorting out valid votes from fraudulent ones. Others in the international community have been less constructive. The New York Times recently reported that “Western official say that the audit of millions of ballots cast on June 14 has made clear that the scope and sophistication of fraud was staggering even for Afghan standards.” But this statement cannot be both complete and true. If the fraud was so sophisticated that the audit could not catch the fraudulent votes, then it means that valid votes are virtually indistinguishable from invalid votes, and it cannot be known whether the scope of fraud was staggering or not. What is staggering is that after spending millions of dollars and more than two months on the audit, and sending international observer teams to monitor it, the Western officials concluded that it was pointless.
The international community has bent over backwards to accommodate Abdullah’s demands. The Kerry-brokered agreement also included a provision for a national unity government, where power would be shared with the loser. They have acquiesced to the bizarre process of revealing the audit results to the candidates but not to the voters. In doing so, they have helped to empty this election of any democratic quality and have undermined the future of elections in Afghanistan.
That Afghan political actors committed fraud should have been expected. Fragmented institutions, weak political parties, insecurity, and the high political stakes have all contributed to electoral fraud in the past. What is surprising though is how much Western officials distrust the democratic mechanism, including additional measures, such as the in-depth audit, that they put in place and oversaw.