Three airless aluminium warehouses, shaped like giant armadillos, sit hunched on the outskirts of Kabul. Inside hundreds of volunteers and international election observers have been bustling around in stifling heat, arguing over the shape of tick-marks on individual ballots. During Ramadan the lack of food and drink made the stale atmosphere inside the godowns all the more draining.
The Ramadan fast has since broken, but the counting goes on. Until it has finished, the presidential election that was supposed to replace Hamid Karzai hangs in suspension.
After a surprising reversal of fortunes suddenly favoured Ashraf Ghani in the second round of the presidential elections, his opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, cried foul. Alleging fraud, several of his powerful supporters threatened to establish a breakaway government.
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It took an emergency agreement brokered by John Kerry, America’s secretary of state, to keep the process alive, but the deal is starting to show some of its inherent flaws. Mr Kerry has moved on and the two presidential hopefuls are now left to wrestle over its shortcomings.
To prevent Afghanistan from splitting down the middle, the candidates committed themselves to a two-pronged agreement: a full, internationally supervised audit of all 8m votes cast; and the formation of a government of national unity. Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah were induced to hug each other before Mr Kerry and the cameras on July 12th. Since then the mood has soured.
One dispute is over the national-unity bit of the deal. Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah agreed to divide power between the president and a “chief of the executive council”, to be nominated by the losing side. In two years’ time, a loya jirga (a gathering of tribal elders, local power-brokers and elected officials) is to vote on the option to turn the new executive role into the post of prime minister.
To this extent, both sides agree. The balance of power, however, is a matter of debate. Mr Abdullah is pushing for something close to a 50-50 division of power.
Mr Ghani however, perhaps feeling confident that his contested lead will stand up in the face of the audit, seems reluctant to put too much “share” in power-sharing. Referring to the Afghan constitution, his side insists that the real power must remain in the hands of the president. “Nobody can push the president,” as Abbas Noyan, a member of Mr Ghani’s team, puts it. He says Mr Ghani is committed to the agreement, but that “further details about the national-unity government will be discussed after the announcement of the audit result.”
Mr Noyan claims that positions in the unity government must be based on merit, not simply on whomever the losing side chooses to introduce. And that the leader of the opposition is supposed to be someone who is loyal to the government of the president. A prime-ministerial post may be established, Mr Noyan allows, “but we will not change the system to a parliamentary one.” It becomes unclear exactly what power will be left to the executive council—Mr Ghani’s side says that its chief will be “responsible for implementing government policies”.
A decade ago it was widely thought that democracy in fissiparous Afghanistan could only work with a strong central authority. But Mr Karzai’s unsatisfactory and increasingly whimsical rule, under which cronies flourished, has underlined the disadvantages of an overstrong presidency.
When the Kerry deal was announced, Mr Karzai called it “a bitter pill”. As it turns out, some Afghan voters are finding it hard to swallow. “They don’t respect our votes,” said Lutfuddin Osmani, a 28-year-old NGO worker. “Why did they have to spend so much money on the elections, if [the candidates] are going to share the power anyway?”
As a result of this dispute, talks behind the scenes have stalled. Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah have met only twice since Mr Kerry’s visit, most recently on July 18th.
The technical part of the agreement also provides grounds for disagreement. As the audit limps along, the agents of both candidates are arguing strenuously over minor details. Should they void only individual votes that appear spoiled? Or should they dump the whole of any contaminated ballot box? In what case does a sharp increase in voter turnout warrant suspicion? Can a fingerprint stand in for a tick mark? Initially scheduled for four weeks, the audit was suspended for the third time on July 26th, and will not resume until after Eid. At its current pace, Afghanistan will not have a new president to inaugurate until December.
Mr Kerry’s mission to Kabul left many Afghans feeling relieved. He appeared to have salvaged an election in which Western donors had invested over $130m.
But neither of the rivals seems to have accepted the basic fact of the contest between them: one of the two must lose more than the other. Stalling and prevarication are the only outcomes on which they seem to stand in agreement.