It’s been nearly four months since Afghans went to the polls in an election fraught with security threats and overshadowed by the faltering progress of US-Taliban peace talks. Although the preliminary results of the election were announced in late December, the final results are yet to be confirmed.
The incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, was declared the winner of the preliminary results with 50.6% of the vote – a paper-thin majority. His main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in the national unity government led by Ghani since 2014, came second.
The introduction of biometric voting machines that used fingerprint scans and photographs in the 2019 election was expected to overcome past allegations of fraud and manipulation. But this did not stop similar allegations emerging over the 2019 election, leading to the eruption of protests and warnings of a crisis.
More than 16,000 complaints were filed about the conduct of the election, although 10,000 were declared invalid by the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission (IECC) on January 14. Still, around 300,000 votes remain contested – 16.4% of the total number of votes deemed valid – including 102,000 votes that the biometric election data shows were cast outside of the allocated voting time, between 7am and 5pm on September 28.
Under the current system, the winner needs 50% plus one vote to secure a majority. If a significant number of these disputed votes are invalidated – a decision that will be taken by the IECC in early February (if all goes well) – it’s possible Ghani’s vote share could dip below 50%. If that happened, there could be a run-off between Ghani and his main opponent Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive in the national unity government.
Turnout at the election was a record low, with less than 19% of the 9.6 million registered voters going to the polls. Only 31% of those who voted were women, down from 38% in 2014. The low turnout was largely attributed to widespread security threats from the Taliban and a lack of trust in the electoral process and presidential candidates.
The use of biometric technology in the presidential election for the first time could also have led to a lower number of valid votes – nearly one million votes were reportedly invalidated due to irregularities.
The low turnout rate has sparked discussions on the legitimacy of the next government if there is no run-off.
In Afghanistan, political legitimacy is not based simply around formal election results but also material resources, power and political alliances that emerge from such processes. In a divided society affected by war, legitimacy can also stem from the power of elites to mobilize and their capacity for violence.
The legitimacy of the political system also depends on whether the losers eventually accept the election results, even if they initially challenge them to gain political advantage. The only time a losing candidate in Afghan elections accepted he hadn’t won was in 2004.
Meanwhile, Zalmy Khalilzad, the US envoy for the Afghan peace process, is waiting to hear whether the Taliban will agree to reduce violence, deemed a precondition for the resumption of US-Taliban peace talks.
The Taliban continues to categorically reject the legitimacy of the Afghan government, calling it a “US-puppet regime” and labelling the election a “sham”. If a peace deal is eventually reached between the US and Taliban, the next stage of peace negotiations between the different parties in Afghanistan will be even more complicated, with clashes expected on whether to maintain the current democratic, republic system or opt for an Islamic emirate. With the Taliban refusing to sit down with the Afghan government, resolving these issues looks a long way off.
Achieving sustainable peace in Afghanistan requires sufficient time as well as a show of genuine will from the parties involved in the armed conflict – both at the national and regional level.
A potential run-off
If a run-off is eventually needed, it would happen in either April or September. But it’s questionable whether holding another costly election in the country’s difficult situation is worth it.
Given the prolonged electoral process and its implications on people’s daily lives, many Afghans are also experiencing electoral fatigue. Ethnic bloc voting is a prevalent feature of Afghanistan presidential elections and results usually follow ethno-regional lines. With the security threat also likely to be the same as in September 2019, a run-off would be unlikely to produce a significantly different outcome.
A runoff may revive calls for the formation of an interim government, which could include the Taliban and other politicians. These calls have especially come by those political elites who feel disenfranchised from the state’s resources and privileges and see the formation of an interim government as an opportunity to renegotiate the distribution of power and resources.
Ways to prevent potential conflict
The logic of a run-off would be to encourage candidates to appeal to voters across ethnic groups mainly by forging multi-ethnic alliances. But evidence from the 2014 run-off – which was between Ghani and Abdullah – shows that it can easily become ethnicized and spiral into a crisis. That election was resolved in a US-brokered deal that created the national unity government, which continues to exist amid the election result delay. But provisions in the deal for formalizing the chief executive role as well as an official leader of the opposition were never realized.
One way forward would be to look beyond the current 50% plus one vote majority required to find a political approach that could reduce the winner-takes-all nature of Afghanistan’s presidential elections. One way to do this could be to include the candidate with second most votes in the government. But instead of focusing on sharing government positions as in 2014 – a situation which led to intra-government rivalries – inclusion should be done with an eye to ensuring both representation and improving the government’s effectiveness.
Another way to reduce the costs of losing the election could be to make political opposition a more attractive path by better defining the opposition’s responsibilities for scrutiny and oversight of the government. The opposition should be treated as a government in waiting, and receive enough funding to fulfil its responsibilities.
Either of these scenarios could prevent a potential electoral conflict, ensure relative legitimacy and stability and boost the effectiveness of the government for Afghans. Then the new government with its relative legitimacy could roll up its sleeves to negotiate a political deal with the Taliban, aiming to achieve a sustainable peace. Even if the peace efforts fail, the government would still enjoy the support of elites co-opted in the state apparatus which in turn may reduce political instability.