After weeks of bitter dispute over fraud claims, Afghanistan's presidential hopefuls have agreed to audit every vote cast in the election, a move that could end the political deadlock, analyst Michael Kugelman tells DW.
The deal, brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry on Saturday July 12, offers a possible way out of an electoral standoff which threatened to plunge the South Asian country into a political crisis and ethnic unrest. Presidential rivals, former finance minister Ashraf Ghani and former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah agreed to an audit of every vote cast in the June 14 runoff election as well as to the formation of a "national government of unity," whoever wins the vote.
The deal, reached after two days of intense negotiations between Kerry and the rival candidates was presented in a joint press conference in Kabul and comes at a crucial time as the US, Afghanistan's biggest foreign donor, prepares to withdraw most of its combat troops by the end of the year.
Preliminary results of the second- round vote put Ghani in the lead but Abdullah, who won the first round of the polls, rejected the count and his aides had threatened to set up an alternative administration.
Michael Kugelman, Afghanistan expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, says in a DW interview that while the deal offers an unexpected opportunity to end the current political deadlock, other problems may ensue later when forming a unity government and adds that any delay also provides the Taliban with more opportunities to sabotage the electoral process.
DW: How significant is this agreement brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry?
Michael Kugelman: It is an absolute game-changer. Many analysts, including myself, expected Kerry's diplomacy to lower temperatures and reduce tensions in Kabul - in effect, to create an environment more conducive for negotiations. But no one expected him to broker an actual solution to the election crisis.
Kugelman says the deal's immediate focus is to have a full audit so that the next president is seen as a legitimately elected one
In the days leading up to the deal, the two candidates had essentially been talking past each other, with utterly no hopes of an end to the impasse in sight. And yet now an agreement has been reached not only to deal with the contested vote, but also with the formation of the next government.
What does the deal exactly call for?
It calls for an audit of every single vote in the run-off, all 8 million of them. The audit will take place over several weeks, and under the auspices of ISAF and the UN. The deal stipulates that whoever has the most votes after the audit is completed, will be accepted as the next president of Afghanistan.
Finally, and most vaguely, that next president will form a government of national unity. This is the only part of the accord that's rather unclear. This may be intentional, however. The immediate focus, and ultimately the most important focus, is to have a full audit so that the next president is seen as a legitimately elected one.
Could the audit of all the ballots cast solve the current electoral crisis?
Yes, because both candidates say they will respect the result after the audit is completed. Additionally, since the audit will take place under the auspices of the UN and ISAF, the Afghan people will likely accept its legitimacy. It's one thing for a handful of international election monitors to passively observe people going to vote.
It's quite another thing for a complete, nationwide audit to be undertaken under the management of the UN and under the protection of heavily armed international troops. There's no reason to think this audit will be anything other than successful.
What would a government of unity look like?
Unity governments can be different things at different times, and we really don't know what's envisioned in this case. The likely outcome, however, is that the candidate who wins the most votes will be president, and he will then invite the loser to join his government - probably in a ministerial position.
In practice, this means that if Ghani becomes president, Abdullah could serve as his foreign minister. Or if Abdullah becomes president, Ghani could serve as his finance minister. We can also expect this new government will be represented by a variety of ethnic groups.
How difficult will it be to keep such a unity government running given the mistrust between both candidates?
It will be no easy task to form and sustain a unity government. The next president will need to be a master diplomat in order to mediate the various interests and grievances of all the various factions represented.
In this regard, a unity government may be stronger under a president Abdullah than Ghani, given the former's diplomatic experience (he was previously foreign minister) and the latter's notorious reputation as a volatile and hot-tempered personality. Then again, Abdullah is a deeply polarizing figure, given his close association with the Northern Alliance movement.
Does this deal put an end to the political deadlock of the past few weeks?
It does, at least for now. Both sides have agreed to an audit, so there should be no issues over the next few weeks while it is undertaken. Of course, problems could ensue later, when it is time to form the unity government. The losing candidate may wish for a cabinet post that is denied to him, or wish that certain allies or supporters be granted positions that are also denied.
This shouldn't lead to any long-term deadlock, though; the two candidates appear committed to forming a government as quickly as possible in order to get back to dealing with the country's many challenges, and to sign the security agreement that will enable US troops to remain in the country next year.
In your view, how did State Secretary Kerry manage to put pressure on the candidates to reach this agreement which took two days to reach?
Kerry likely invoked the same threat he first issued last week: Any attempt to form a government undemocratically will lead the US to cut off all aid to Afghanistan. When Kerry first made this threat last week, he was responding to Abdullah's suggestion that he may establish a parallel government.
This time, Kerry likely wanted the candidates to know that they had no choice but to come to an agreement, because the alternative - a protracted dispute leading to protest, violence, perhaps even conflict, and, ultimately an aid cut-off - would be much, much worse. Afghanistan is heavily dependent on US security and economic assistance, which serves as a virtual lifeline for Afghanistan's security forces and economy.
If it were to be cut off, Afghanistan would be plunged into a crisis far more dangerous than the election crisis. Abdullah and Ghani know this, and so Kerry's threat likely helped get the two candidates to hunker down and reach a deal.
The vote recount is set to last for weeks, how would this prolonged period of political stalemate affect the country?
Certainly any further delay prior to the inauguration of the next president is dangerous for Afghanistan, a nation where stability remains elusive. Also, a delay provides the Taliban with more opportunities to sabotage the process - such as by attacking ISAF forces and UN staff involved with the audit.
The nationwide audit will take place under the auspices of the UN and under the protection of heavily armed international troops, says Kugelman
It also keeps open the nightmare possibility - no matter how remote and unlikely - of an assassination of one of the candidates. According to Afghan law, if a presidential candidate is assassinated during the electoral process, then the entire vote must start again from the very beginning. Several weeks ago, Abdullah's motorcade was attacked. The Taliban may be tempted to try again.
How much damage has been done to the country's democratic future by the dispute between the candidates and the allegations of fraud?
The seemingly large extent of fraud is troubling, but it's not damaging for democracy. For Afghanistan to have gone from being a Taliban-led state to a country on the cusp of its first peaceful transfer of power is an impressive feat - and a clear victory for democracy. Also, the fact that the two deadlocked candidates agreed on a peaceful path to end the electoral crisis is itself a smashing achievement for democracy.
Michael Kugelman is an Afghanistan expert and senior program associate for South and Southeast Asia at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars.