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Afghan Presidential Election 2019: Positive Development Or A Mockery of Democracy

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Anish Mishra analysis the preliminary results of the Afghan presidential elections and how the close competition between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah may play out. He also questions if the elections are a positive development or a pseudo-democratic exercise.

On, 22 December, 2019, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IECA) released the preliminary results of the 2019 Afghan Presidential election held on 28 September, 2019. In Afghanistan, presidential elections are based on the two-round system similar to countries such as France and Turkey. This means that a candidate is required to win more than 50% of valid votes to be declared victorious in the first round. If in an event no single Presidential candidate is able secure more than 50% of valid votes, a second round is held between the top two candidates of the first round.

The IECA also has a practice of releasing preliminary results before announcing the final official results of presidential elections. The Afghan state deserves to be applauded for conducting four elections (2004, 2009, 2014 and 2019) at regular five year intervals since the current Afghan constitution came into effect on 26 January, 2004, despite its inherent flaws. In a country such as Afghanistan, this is by any measure an incredible feat and also a positive step towards a democratisation in Afghanistan.

According to the preliminary results of the 2019 Afghan president election released by the IECA; the incumbent Afghan President Ashraf Ghani emerged as the leading candidate, polling 50.64% of valid votes, he is closely followed by the incumbent chief executive of Afghanistan, Abdullah Abdullah, coming in second place with 39.52% of valid vote. The remaining 9.84% of valid votes is split among 12 other candidates, with the exception of Gulbedin Hekmatyar who received 3.85% of valid votes; the other candidates each polled between 1.86%- 0.05% of total valid votes. This shows that the 2019 Afghan presidential election is ultimately a race between the two big boys in town even though the other candidates have a significant contribution in influencing the electoral outcome.

Extrapolating from the preliminary results, this seems to be a neck and neck competition between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah. If there is little change between the preliminary result and the final result, it would mean that the winner of this election would be pronounced with only a very thin margin.

Given the severe irregularities of the 2019 Afghan Presidential election, allegations of massive rigging and low voter turnout, even when compared to previous presidential elections in Afghanistan since 2004, there is no way that Abdullah Abdullah and his supporters would accept Ghani’s slim victory margin of 0.64% of valid votes as sufficient to be declared the winner in the first round. Thus, there is a high possibility that the two leading candidates and the IEAC are already in a negotiation process for an agreement to take place.

In order to forecast possible scenarios that could play out after the final election result is declared, one must conduct a retrospective analysis of the political outcomes of previous Afghan elections that were conducted based on the 2004 Afghan Constitution. Thus, there are only three elections to look back upon.

In the 2004 Afghan presidential election, the incumbent interim president, Hamid Karzai¸ secured 55.4% of the valid votes in the first round and was declared Afghanistan’s first elected President under the 2004 constitution. There was no serious hindrance in implementing the electoral results of the 2004 Afghan Presidential election. Such a smooth presidential election outcome is unlike the case in 2009, 2014 and 2019.

The 2009 Afghan presidential election is of key importance when analysing the 2019 election as it marks the entrance of Abdullah Abdullah to the Afghan presidential election scene. Abdullah Abdullah has been a presidential candidate in 2009, 2014 and 2019. This shows his determination to be the elected president of Afghanistan. It also means that Abdullah Abdullah is Afghanistan’s most experienced presidential candidate in terms of campaigning and influencing electoral outcomes.

In 2009, the incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, emerged as the leading candidate in the first round with 49.67% of valid votes; Abdullah Abdullah was the first runner-up with 30.59% of valid votes. The results of the first-round would have warranted a second round which had been scheduled however, Abdullah decided to boycott the second-round and thus Karzai was re-elected president of Afghanistan.

In 2014, Hamid Karzai was no longer eligible to run for the Afghan Presidency due to term limits. In the first-round of the 2014 Afghan Presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah emerged as the leading candidate with 45.0% of valid votes while Ashraf Ghani was the runner-up, securing 31.56% of valid votes. This triggered a second-round between Ghani and Abdullah who were the top two leading candidates of the first round. Unlike in 2009, Abdullah went on to participate in the second-round, optimistic with his electoral performance in the first-round, hoping to get elected as president in the second-round. However, contrary to Abdullah’s expectation, Ashraf Ghani was elected president in the second round, securing 55.27% of valid votes, while Abdullah received the remaining 44.73% of valid votes. Abdullah Abdullah disputed the results of the second-round and alleged that there had been massive rigging in the 2014 Presidential elections. The dispute between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah created public disorder and chaos in Afghanistan until the then United States (US) Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to intervene and mediated a deal between the two contenders.

The agreement between Ghani and Abdullah led to the formation of a National Unity Government for the next five years in which Ghani would be sworn-in as the elected President of Afghanistan and a new position of chief executive was created for Abdullah Abdullah.

Examining the 2019 Afghan presidential elections in light of the two previous elections contested by Abdullah Abdullah reveals possible scenarios that could unfold when the final results of the first-round of the 2019 presidential election are announced.    

In the first case, assuming that Ashraf Ghani is re-elected president in the first round if he secures more than 50% of valid votes in the final results. Three possible scenarios could unfold from here. First, Abdullah walks home empty handed but rejects the results and creates public disorder and chaos in Kabul. Second, party mediation leads to a deal between Ghani and Abdullah in which Abdullah gets a second term as chief executive. Third, in the period from now to the release of the final results, Ghani and Abdullah enter into secret negotiations and both agree to respect the election results; Abdullah will be offered a second term as chief executive with additional political concessions and privileges.

In the second case, assuming Ghani’s vote share falls below the required 50% of valid votes triggering round-two of the presidential elections. Three possible scenarios could unfold from here. First, Ghani wins the election, Abdullah walks home empty handed, creates massive public disorder and chaos in Kabul. Second, Ghani wins the election; Abdullah rejects the results and is offered a second term as chief executive. Third, Abdullah wins the election and Ghani walks home empty handed.

As Abdullah has already tasted the power of operating the Afghan state apparatus, it is highly unlikely that he will walk home empty handed. Besides the point that Abdullah is well-aware that in the next presidential election, assuming the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan is still in existence, Ghani will be ineligible for re-elections due to term limits, thus there will be no serious contender left who could deny Abdullah Abdullah the Afghan Presidency. This is a strong incentive for Abdullah to take-up a second term as chief executive, thinking that in effect he is president-in-waiting. Such a posture would make Abdullah an important stakeholder in the Afghan peace process.

At the same time, Ghani will be inclined to make such an offer to Abdullah as it was Ghani’s decision to conduct the 2019 Presidential election against conventional wisdom given the current security and political situation in Afghanistan. Former President Hamid Karzai described this election as ‘asking a heart patient to run a marathon’. He also said, “We cannot conduct elections in a country that is going through a foreign-imposed conflict. We are in a war of foreign objectives and interests. It isn’t our conflict. We are only dying in it.” Karzai rightfully termed Ghani as the ‘architect of chaos’.

It was with great difficulty that the IECA managed to pull-off the first-round of the 2019 Afghan presidential election. The Afghan state lacks the capacity and resources to conduct a second-round although it may be possible with the support of international donors. This logistical constrain is a motive for the IECA and Ghani to conclude the election in the first round. Also the lukewarm turnout of merely over 1.8 million voters in the first-round is a disincentive to invest more scarce resource in this pseudo-democratic exercise in a country such as Afghanistan where citizens have more urgent needs than democracy. The increasing strength of the Afghan Taliban and reluctance of the United States to fully back the Afghan regime is another challenge in conducting the second-round of the 2019 Afghan presidential election. After all, what is the point of risking Afghan lives and resources to elect a head of a state which is on the verge of collapse?

Political Scientist Ronald Inglehart from the University of Michigan and founder of the World Values Survey analysed the relationship between development, value change and democracy in the 1970s. Using the theoretical framework of Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs; Inglehart discovered that people who were conditioned to economic prosperity and security tended to believe in post-materialistic values such as freedom, democracy, social justice, human rights and environmental issues. On the other hand, people who grew up under periods of economic despair, poor social conditions, insecurity and turmoil tended to have more materialistic values which gave higher importance to economic wealth, physical security and basic needs rather than post-materialistic values such as democracy.

The findings of Ronald Inglehart can be applied to the case of Afghanistan where people are still fighting for the right to life, liberty and property. In such conditions, it is unrealistic to expect such a society to champion the cause of democracy unless it is viewed as a means to securing their basic needs.

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