It has been well over two months since Afghanistan held presidential elections to elect a President for a five-year term. The 28 September elections came about at a very critical juncture and with multiple challenges facing the country. Before the Election Day had arrived, the process had faced many challenges and most observers doubted that an election would take place at all. Some candidates were actively pushing for other ideas instead of holding presidential elections. These were linked and influenced by the then extensive and latter abandoned discussions and negotiations between Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad of the United States and Taliban representatives in Doha, Qatar.
Rumours dominated the traditional and social media scene in Afghanistan, questions were raised about the viability of holding presidential elections and ideas were flying around about the dissolution of current Afghan Government and the arrival of an interim government. The whole episode posed serious challenges to the constitutional setup and democratic process in Afghanistan. The main worry was that the power vacuum created by such proposition will give Taliban the last straw to break the back of Afghan State and once again make way for a repeat of the 1990s when the Afghan State disintegrated as a result of a brutal civil war and infighting among the many warring factions.
Moreover, none of the ideas floating around had any basis in Afghanistan’s constitution or provided for a meaningful exit strategy. More than that, Afghan people were generally wary of any interim setup, especially one promoted by Pakistan as they had experienced the brutal civil war as a result of one such an interim government set up in Peshawar, Pakistan back in the 1990s.
Against this backdrop, President Ghani was unwavering in his resolve to continue the democratic process and let the people decide on the question of succession in line with the constitutional setup. The message of protecting the republic and preventing a collapse of State and Government were effectively deployed at every opportunity to rally the country that the only option for transfer of power was through holding presidential elections. For their part, Taliban openly declared that everything and anyone associated with Elections will be a legitimate target for their militants and warned the Afghan people against participating in the process.
The incumbent President Ashraf Ghani was challenged by more than a dozen other candidates for the top job with Dr Abdullah Abdullah as the main challenger. President Ghani and CEO Abdullah have been part of a National Unity Government (NUG) brokered by former US Secretary of States, John Kerry. The United States brokered the deal that led to President Ghani appointing Dr Abdullah, who was his main rival in 2014 presidential elections, as the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) in the NUG. The NUG was mired with problems and challenges from day one as the two camps did not see eye to eye on many issues and policy options for the country. While President Ghani’s camp had ridden a wave of unprecedented grassroots support movement based on promises of sustaining the gains, introducing fundamental reforms and fighting corruption. Dr Abdullah camp was focused on different and at times conflicting agendas and claiming 50% of the Government positions and a general tendency to continue the status quo in Afghanistan.
On Election Day 28 September 2019, millions of Afghan people risked their lives and participated in the elections. The turnout was understandably low, but the democratic process and the future of democracy in Afghanistan were protected by the voters who braved unprecedented security challenges and cast their ballots for preserving the republic and continuing the democratic process. Afghan people from all corners of the country who cast their ballots under such extreme conditions did their duty and fulfilled their civic responsibility.
However, since then and till now when almost two months have passed the results of presidential elections are still not released by the election administrators, the Independent Election Commission (IEC).
Due to past failures of election administrators, for this election, a number of important steps were incorporated to make sure and eliminate the chance of any large scale organised ballot stuffing. Before the Election Day, all voters were preregistered and voter lists were established for all the polling sites across the country. Every voter was tied to a particular voting site where they could only cast their ballot at that particular site only. These measures were meant to prevent any chance of large scale fraud in the 28 September elections. Technology was also used on large scale for conducting the elections. Every voter was required to biometrically enrol their details before they were allowed to cast their ballots. These measures were unprecedented for any election, let alone in a country like Afghanistan with limited understanding of technology by the populace.
On Election Day there were some reports of limited number of biometric devices not working properly for a number of reasons pertaining to the environment in Afghanistan. These included low internet bandwidth, lack of electricity and unfamiliarity with such high end and modern technology. Later on it was also revealed that some biometric devices were stolen and lost by the IEC which further eroded confidence in the process.
As soon as the voting period ended and even during the voting period, the rumour mills on social media as well as the traditional media were hard at work to raise questions about the elections. Candidates and their teams started to question the validity of the vote before the voting ended for the day and people were still lining up to cast their ballots. Pundits and analysts started declaring the elections as fraud-ridden and a total failure. The Afghan man and woman who risked their lives, stood in line for hours, patiently waited and consented to give very private and sensitive biometric details in order to cast their ballot were forgotten the moment the rumours started. Almost every stakeholder in the election has not paid attention to the risk associated with ignoring the electorate who braved all threats and participated in the democratic process.
Voters braved to come out and vote were let down. Starting with some candidates who actively undermined these brave voters and some even called them ‘sheep’ and other animal names for voting for their opponents. The media failed to question and test any rumour or claim and published unsubstantiated reports about large scale fraud and ballot stuffing. All the voices who were actively working against the election before 28 September 2019 went into hyperdrive and started to question every move, every mistake, every turn in the process without any regard for millions of men and women who risked everything to vote for preserving the republic and continuing the democratic process.
Unfortunately, the horse-trading and the blame game have continued till now. Millions of voters who cast their ballots at great personal risk still do not know what happened to their vote. The election administrators are not allowed to do their job by some candidates who fear they might have lost the elections. Some candidates are resorting to threats, intimidation, using ethnic slurs and threat of violence to deny Afghans a result for their Presidential Election. Against all the rules and procedures, some candidates are using all illegal and unethical means to delay the results further. Even United Nations which provides an advisory and support role to the process are made targets of accusations, intimidation and taking sides. On 24 November 2019, a car marked with UN insignia was attacked in Kabul and one international UN staff member was tragically killed and several injured. No one has claimed responsibility for this attack on UN in Afghanistan. Social media is filled with threats, intimidation, and planning for violence by candidates who will lose if the election results are announced. All these developments are critically undermining the democratic process, stability and confidence in Afghanistan.
The unfortunate manner in which the Afghan public and those who risked their lives to vote have been treated by the prevailing circumstances, the candidates, the media and those responsible for delaying results can be nothing short of a tragic betrayal. A betrayal of their sacrifices, trust and their willingness to participate in a democratic process in order to preserve the republic and do not allow any terrorist proxy group to ever dream of taking over Afghanistan. Importantly, delaying election results any further will add to the mounting challenges the country faces at a time when matters of war and peace need to be decided soon.
Afghanistan’s international partners, its vibrant yet fragmented media, the candidates and anyone who values democratic governance must come together and call on election administrators to announce the results immediately and put an end to the mad show which has materialised as Afghanistan’s presidential elections. As for the future, the responsible entities or partners in the process must make sure that the next time an Afghan woman and man casts a ballot in an election; they get the results within 48 hours.
The writer is a public sector governance researcher and consultant with extensive experience of working on development and governance issues in Afghanistan, he tweets under @kwakily