The surprise decision by Afghan presidential challenger Abdullah Abdullah to pull out of Afghanistan’s presidential runoff muddles an already murky political situation for U.S. foreign policy decision makers.
Perhaps just as significant, it makes even more critical the decisions faced by President Hamid Karzai. Those choices will largely determine Afghans’ views on the legitimacy of their government and also serve as a barometer on prospects for U.S. success in that country.
Afghans voted for president on Aug. 20 in an historic election. It was only the second time Afghans had the opportunity to elect their country’s leader and the first administered by the people of Afghanistan, not the international community.
Initial results announced by the Afghan Independent Election Commission gave President Karzai 54.6 percent of the vote. However, allegations of fraud were immediate and widespread.
Domestic and international monitors believe as many as 1.5 million votes were cast fraudulently. After several weeks gathering information and reviewing ballots, the Electoral Complaints Commission, a United Nations-supported organization charged with adjudicating voting irregularities, disqualified enough votes for President Karzai to push him below 50 percent of the total.
Afghanistan’s constitution requires the winner to receive at least half the vote, forcing a runoff between the incumbent and Dr. Abdullah, a former foreign minister, who placed second with 28 percent.
Much was riding on the runoff. Lorne Craner explained to a congressional committee that “desired improvements cannot be achieved unless Afghans believe their officials are legitimately elected.” Craner is president of the International Republican Institute, a non-partisan organization that has advanced democracy and encouraged electoral participation in Afghanistan for several years.
Dr. Abdullah repeatedly said he would participate in the runoff only if improved anti-fraud measures were in place. In a news conference, he said not enough had been done to ensure a credible election, leading to his decision to pull out of the second round.
In a transitional country, especially one with a history overflowing with ethnic divisions and armed conflict, it’s worth noting that Afghanistan’s constitution has been followed during this electoral process. Resorting to violence or usurping constitutional principles too often occurs when election disputes arise in countries struggling toward stability. Afghan leaders have worked within an established electoral framework despite Taliban threats of violence, challenging logistical hurdles and no history of peaceful transfers of power.
Election officials have since declared President Karzai the winner of a second five-year term. But having earned only a plurality in a ballot marred by allegations of massive fraud, he is saddled with no clear mandate and questions on the election’s legitimacy.
Security and corruption are clearly the most pressing long-term issues facing the Karzai government. However, a number of near-term steps must be taken to restore Afghans’ trust that their political infrastructure is legitimate, helping to rebuild credibility in the international community in the process.
President Karzai was the favored candidate of Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, who live mostly in the south and west, while Dr. Abdullah garnered most of his support from Tajiks in the north. Embracing a power-sharing arrangement with some ministries and governorships held by supporters of Dr. Abdullah will signal to a large segment of the population that it hasn’t been disenfranchised.
Broadening the coalition even further will speak volumes about the government’s commitment to represent all of Afghanistan’s diverse population. Including supporters of Ramazan Bashardost, a Hazara candidate who placed third on Aug. 20, would provide a stake in the government to a long-persecuted minority.
For the most part, Afghans lack a vibrant civil society to give them the opportunity to coalesce around commonly held beliefs and hold government leaders accountable for their words and deeds. Should the Karzai government welcome and promote programs to build and strengthen civic institutions, Afghans will see that they have a voice and mechanisms to work together for a better future for their families and their country.
Afghans and the international community should also continue to see that the Afghan constitution is followed with decisions made transparently. When the inevitable governance problems arise, they must be addressed and resolved publicly and according to Afghan law.
Former President Ronald Reagan once said that, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction.” While recent events in Afghanistan have clouded the picture, there remains a distinct opportunity to solidify a new generation of stability and liberty in a region that desperately needs it.
Brian C. Keeter, director of public affairs at Auburn University, was an international election observer for the Aug. 20 presidential election in Afghanistan. He has observed previous elections in Haiti, Mexico, Russia and Ukraine.