Afghan Election Results Threaten Further Destabilisation

On Tuesday 18 February, the Afghan government declared Ashraf Ghani to be the winner of the presidential election with a slim margin of 50.64%, opening the way for his second term in office. Votes were cast five months ago, and results were scheduled to be announced on 19 September, but the process was significantly delayed amid allegations of fraud and corruption. Abdullah Abdullah, runner up in the election and Ghani’s main rival, has rejected the results as “illegal” and pledged to form a parallel government. 

Experts fear that the disputed election results threaten to destabilise the country at a crucial time. Kate Clark of the Afghanistan Analysts Network explained that “at a normal time, disputed election results would be traumatic for a country that craves stability and strong government, but this week, Afghans are also expecting a U.S.-Taliban deal to be announced. That deal should usher in the start of talks between the Taliban and other Afghans.” However, negotiation may be jeopardised if the Afghan political class is “locked in a battle as to who sits in the presidential palace.”

The U.S. and Taliban have been at loggerheads since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion toppled the Taliban from power, rendering the conflict America’s longest running war to date. In this period, over 31,000 civilian deaths have been documented, with nearly the same number wounded. The two sides are reportedly close to a crucial peace deal, which could see the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan in exchange for a guarantee that the country will not be used as a launchpad for foreign attacks. However, the sealing of the deal will require heavy involvement from the Afghan government, and strong leadership from Kabul – something which disputed election results and allegations of corruption threaten to undermine. Abdullah is backed by a strong anti-Ghani coalition, including support from warlord Gen Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum has a loyal following in north Afghanistan, and has promised to help Abdullah establish his own inclusive government. Moreover, Abdullah’s supporters have made no secret of their willingness to use violence to gain power: his campaign chief Fazal Ahmad Manawi said “democracy, election and civil values is not functional in this country as whoever captures power tries to maintain it with any cunning possible. The only way for obtaining power is force.” 

Crucially, so far the Taliban has refused to enter talks with Ghani’s government, calling it a “puppet regime” under the influence of the West. Ghani himself studied at Columbia University and lived there for 24 years, only returning to Afghanistan after the end of the Taliban’s regime. The Taliban has rejected the election results as a “fraud”. It is true that the election saw a historically low turnout, with even fewer votes counted. Of the 35 million-strong population, 9.6 million are registered to vote: however, only 2.7 million made it to the polls, and an estimated million votes were purged due to irregularities, meaning 1.8 million were tallied. Afghan political analyst Habib Wardak explained that whilst insecurity in parts of the country made it difficult for citizens to get out and vote, the driving force behind the low turnout was “that Afghans have lost hope in the electoral processes,” and are disillusioned with politics. Ultimately, it seems unlikely that a government without the backing of the people, and which the Taliban regards as illegitimate, will be able to successfully steer a course through intense negotiations with the U.S.. 

The election results have undoubtedly further destabilised Afghanistan and fanned flames of violence which have been smouldering in the country for decades. If Abdullah does indeed establish a parallel government, it is possible that the country will descend into fighting as he claims power by force. Moreover, long-term peace in the country is reliant on the withdrawal of U.S, troops and a peace deal with the Taliban, which will only be achieved if the Taliban accepts the ruling government as legitimate. It is unclear yet whether the U.S. government is willing to intervene to ensure harmony in Kabul; but given the allegations of corruption and animosity towards Western intervention, a U.S. delegation may only increase tensions in the region. In any case, both Ghani’s government and the West must tread carefully to guarantee that the critical peace deal is reached at this fragile time. 

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