Afghan peace process: Beyond another controversial election
Afghanistan was one of the top agenda items during Imran-Trump summit. Soon after President Donald Trump’s abrupt walking away from the peace process, Pakistan had begun its diplomatic efforts to bring the dysfunctional Taliban-US peace talks back on track, fearing that an absence of negotiated settlement would trigger a new phase of civil war. Another controversial elections have taken place in Afghanistan. This may partially satisfy the egos of Presidents Donald Trump and Ashraf Ghani. Marred by low turn-out, electoral mal-practices, violence and technical glitches, these elections reinforce the tradition of low credibility elections in Afghanistan.
Since disruption of US-Taliban talks, independent assessments had projected that the process would resume once America has a new regime installed in Afghanistan, even though, through questionable elections. Trump had halted talks with the Taliban at a time when both sides had said they were close to reaching a deal.
First round of electoral process concluded on September 30. Ability of Taliban to launch hundreds of small attacks throughout the length and breadth of Afghanistan on Election Day alone, of which just 68 were acknowledged by Afghan government; and Afghan government’s resolve, to still manage to hold elections, though having a historic low turnout are the barometer of current balance of power in Afghanistan—indeed a New Normal. Yet, billion dollar questions are: Will this power equilibrium stand for itself minus the occupation forces? And would Taliban have different approach towards the upcoming regime than with the incumbent Afghan government?
Notwithstanding, Ambassador Zilmay Khalilzad arrived in Islamabad on October 01; followed a day later by high-level delegation of Afghan Taliban led by Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar. Both sides held extensive talks between October 3-7; ostensibly for creating enabling environment for resumption of stalled peace process. Reportedly, both sides showed eagerness to resume the process. Both delegations also held talks with Pakistan’s Foreign Minister.
Interestingly, both rivals Ashraf Ghani, and Abdullah Abdullah were quick to claim victory, just when the vote count began and the final tally was more than two weeks away. Moreover, there are 12 other candidates in the fray, and the winner is to bag at least 51 percent of the cast votes; none of the candidate is likely to cross the mark. If so, there would be a run-off elections or a second round in November, when people would vote again for two lead candidates. If claims by Ghani and Abdullah are credible then Afghanistan may be heading for continuation of existing Unity Government setup with little bit variations. Election officials have slammed victory claims as premature.
Abdullah said at a news conference on October 01: “We have the most votes in this election”. “The results will be announced by the IEC [Independent Election Commission], but we have the most votes”. Likewise, Ghani’s running mate Amrullah Saleh said that the president had won a clear first-ballot victory. Senior IEC official Habib Rahman Nang immediately slammed the claims of victory as premature. “No candidate has the right to declare himself the winner,” he said. Results are not expected until Octob-er 19. Like earlier elections, voter turnout was low because of attacks and threat of attacks, a muted campaign and concerns over electoral fraud. Abdullah claimed in remarks that “some government officials” meddled in the election process. His statements follow the release on social media of several videos purporting to show election workers “stuffing” ballots. Parliamentarians have called for an official inquiry into the videos. The complaints commission has received 2,569 complaints.
Low voter turnout was reported across the country. Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley said the turnout appeared to be low compared with the 2014 presidential polls. Out of 9 million registered voters, only 2.5 million voted; while during 2014 elections 7 million had voted. Election Commission extended voting by two hours. Election Commission said it had lost contact with 901 of the country’s 5,373 polling centres where telecom services were not active. Moreover, 464 polling centres in 17 provinces were closed, including 33 centres which lacked election materials. Five years ago, they were promised big changes, such as the economy and security will be improved, but none of that happened. So people here think if they vote it’s going to be more of the same. People in Afghanistan faced a tough choice: vote, and risk being killed, or, stay at home and remain safe; majority preferred personal safety over national duty.
Afghan government heralded the election as a success because the Taliban were unable to pull off a large-scale attack resulting in high casualty numbers, and there were fewer technical difficulties than some had feared. President Ghani hailed the election as a sign of strengthening democracy in Afghanistan. Felicitations poured in, from international community, to appreciate the Afghan people. United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres earlier commended “all Afghans who exercised their democratic voice”, and congratulated them on their “commitment to selecting their leaders through the ballot box”. Pakistan government has also felicitated the government and the people of Afghanistan for holding the elections. On request of Afghan government, Pakistan had opened the entry/exit points between the two countries for facilitating Afghans residing in Pakistan to help them exercise their right of vote.
Abdullah and Ghani shared power over the past five years in a so-called unity government formed by the United States after a standoff in the wake of allegations of widespread fraud and corruption in the 2014 polls. This has been, by and large a dysfunctional government, with president and chief executive exchanging barbs, too frequently and publically. Will these elections affect attempts to end the years-long conflict? One has to wait and see the things unfold!