Afghanistan faces many pressing challenges in the years ahead, but at the moment, none is more urgent than stopping the political crisis surrounding the results of the presidential election.
Over the past few days, both presidential candidates have been subverting the political process by rushing to claim victory. Abdullah Abdullah, the former foreign minister, has denounced the results of the vote as fraudulent. Some of his allies are calling for the creation of a breakaway government under his leadership. Mr. Abdullah is upset because his opponent, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani, appears to have won the election – at least if preliminary results are borne out. The trouble is that those results are under question and still unconfirmed. But as his supporters pour into the streets of Kabul, Mr. Ghani isn’t exactly stopping them from declaring premature victory.
It’s a depressing turn of events for Afghanistan, which just a few months ago seemed poised for a smooth transition from the long rule of Hamid Karzai. The results of the first presidential ballot, held in April, were credible, with relatively high voter turnout and no evidence of widespread corruption. Mr. Abdullah finished first, with 45 per cent of the vote – 13 points ahead of his closest competitor, Mr. Ghani. The results triggered a run-off between the two leading candidates. The tally from the second vote contrasts sharply with the first. Preliminary counts show Mr. Ghani with more than double the votes he received on the first round – and winning the election, with 56.4 per cent of the vote to Mr. Abdullah’s 43.6 per cent. It’s a staggering shift in the electorate – and many observers believe it’s just not credible. Afghan authorities agree, saying nearly three million votes out of roughly eight million cast should be reviewed.
The long and costly international effort meant to develop a functioning Afghan democracy means the country has the tools in place to navigate itself out of this mess – at least on paper. Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission should conduct a comprehensive audit of the votes – beyond its initial audit of 1,930 polling centres. But a major review of a ballots will take time, and demand patience on the part of presidential candidates and their supporters. Given the way both sides have been talking over the last few days, reasonableness appears to be in desperately short supply.
But Afghanistan’s largely fair first round of voting proves that electoral corruption is not preordained. The first-round results also show that, despite the fragility of their nascent democracy, Afghans are capable of peacefully exercising their right to vote, and respecting the results. Inflammatory rhetoric and the flouting of due process on the part of the presidential candidates are dangerous, threaten to throw the country into turmoil, and rob it of crucial financial support from the West. It may end that way; it doesn’t have to. Both candidates should commit to respecting the audited results of the vote and finding a way of working together for the sake of their country’s future.