Elections in Afghanistan: Redux of 2014?

Ending months of suspense, Afghanistan held its fourth Presidential elections on 28th September. As the United States was engaged with Taliban in search of finding a political way out of Afghan mess, holding Presidential elections seemed a distant possibility till early September. However, as President Trump cancelled talks with the Taliban on 8th September, US’s calculations changed and elections were held as scheduled. More than 70000 Afghan troops were deployed to secure close to 5500 polling stations, of which 400 to 500 stations were believed to be under Taliban’s control. However, despite these security arrangements, out of Afghanistan’s 9.5 million eligible voters, only about 25% turned up to vote. Taliban’s warnings to boycott elections and disinterested voters due to the controversial elections of 2014 were two key factors behind the lowest voter turnout since 2001. It does not augur well for the survival of democracy in Afghanistan.

For a young democracy like Afghanistan which faces significant security challenges, elections present a chance of celebration as well as fear and anxiety. In urban centres like Kabul and Herat, the elite has emerged which understands the value of elections and democratic processes. However, the Taliban had warned Afghan people to not participate in elections. To prove the credibility of its threats, Taliban had constantly been attacking election rallies and in fact, went as far as attacking President Ghani’s running mate and former intelligence chief, Amarullah Saleh in Kabul last July. Although Saleh survived miraculously, it also demonstrated the Taliban’s capability to disrupt elections by launching attacks in the heart of Kabul. Since then, attacks had intensified across Afghanistan. Therefore, it is surprising to see that no major attack took place on Saturday. Taliban and Pakistan may perhaps saw future gains in not launching any major attacks on the electoral process. However, they would be keenly watching the fall out of these elections. Internal divisions and reduced legitimacy of Kabul government resulting from these elections will bolster the hands of the Taliban.

Out of the 18 presidential candidates in the fray, two strongest contenders have already declared victory. Incumbent, President Ghani would want to emulate his predecessor, Hamid Karzai who had won his re-election bid in 2009. Ghani has declared victory by saying that we have the most votes. However, it is not clear whether the elections with such a low voter turnout and US’s inclination to talk with the Taliban at the cost of Kabul government will strengthen Ghani’s hands in his second term. His challenger and former Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah too claimed to have won the elections. Ghani and Abdullah had fought against each other in bitterly contested elections in 2014 as well and the US had to broker a power-sharing deal between the two.

Elections in Afghanistan open up ethnic fault lines and in many cases, in fact, result in deepening those fault lines. The standoff that lasted for months, tarnishing the legitimacy of the electoral process, in 2014 between President Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah would serve as a useful reminder here. This time around, although elections were held in September, it is uncertain when the results will be announced. It is expected that results of the first round will not be announced till 19th October and final results will not come before 7th November. Evidently, delayed elections results lessen the legitimacy of electoral process. Past Afghan elections have also faced charges of widespread rigging, intimidation and fraud and these elections are likely to face similar allegations. Therefore, it is imperative to ensure that the election process remains free and fair for the survival of democracy in Afghanistan.

The holding of elections has always been a daunting challenge in Afghanistan due to security threats, deep ethnic fault lines and difficult geography. However, these are probably the most important elections in determining the country’s future course of action. It is widely believed that the democratic process has taken root in Afghanistan since 2001. However, the low voter turnout could be claimed as a victory by Taliban and might be interpreted as a lack of popular support for democracy in Afghanistan. Moreover, it is likely to boost up the Taliban’s confidence and make their position stronger as well as weaken the Kabul regime.

Afghanistan’s status as a democracy and survival as a republic is at stake. Afghanistan today is an Islamic republic and has experimented with the democratic politics for the last 18 years under the US-provided security. However, Taliban does not accept Afghanistan as an Islamic republic and in fact, wanted to get recognition for non-democratic ‘Islamic emirate of Afghanistan’ in its talks with the US. Moreover, Taliban does not recognize the Kabul government as a legitimate government and therefore, forced the US to exclude it from negotiations in Doha. However, this move by the US backfired and it came under heavy criticism from Afghans as well as non-Afghans. These elections, even if the results are announced in time, do not provide any decisive acceptance or rejection of the Taliban’s idea of Afghanistan nor do they strengthen Kabul government vis-à-vis Taliban.

It was expected that there will be some clarity regarding the future course of action in Afghanistan after the elections. However, it seems likely that the post-election scenario will not change anything on the ground yet. Therefore, the key questions will continue to revolve around the US’s willingness to support the incoming government in Kabul and its ability to get the Taliban to agree to an honourable deal. The elections per se do not provide any clues regarding the reopening of US-Taliban talks and the future of Kabul government.

Although the US was ambiguous about holding Presidential elections before cancelling talks, India was keen that elections should proceed as scheduled. In the past, India had argued to the US that despite the ongoing talks with the Taliban, elections should be held. However, as peace talks gathered momentum, India’s position was weakened and neglected. Therefore, cancellation of talks between the US and Taliban and holding elections on schedule came as a piece of good news from the Indian perspective. However, low voter turnout would not excite India and it would be watching the unfolding political developments warily. It is not in the interest of any significant player, except Taliban and Pakistan, involved in Afghan affairs to repeat what happened in 2014. However, the tragedy is that in the context of complexities in Afghanistan, redux of 2014 cannot be ruled out.