Electing Afghanistan's New President

Afghanistan was a monarchy until 1973 when the king's brother-in-law and first cousin, ousted him in a coup. The latter then proceeded to dissolve the 200-year-old institution of the monarchy and installed himself as president. In 1978, a group of Soviet-trained Afghan army officers deposed him. The next president was allegedly suffocated via a pillow by his successor in 1979, who, in turn, was shot to death in his palace in December 1979 by the Soviet troops, who claimed that they had come to his assistance! It cannot therefore be said that Afghanistan has not had elements of high melodrama regarding who and in what circumstances would occupy the position of head of state. The proverb, "uneasy lies the head that wears the crown", is apposite in the case of 20th century Afghanistan.

Following 9/11, Hamid Karzai, who served for some time as a Deputy Foreign Minister in the post-Soviet withdrawal government, headed by an Afghan resistance leader Burhanuddin Rabbani, was elected President of Afghanistan in 2004. In 2009, he contested the presidential election again, which he was allowed to do under the Afghan constitution. This time around, he faced a formidable opponent in his own former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. The election was marred by wide-spread allegations of rigging. In the run-off, Abdullah -- fearing that Karzai had stacked the deck against him -- walked away from the election.

It is 2014 and it is election time in Afghanistan once again. Karzai cannot be a candidate again under the constitutional provisions. The contest now largely hinges between Abdullah Abdullah and Abdul Ghani, both of whom are well-known in Afghanistan. The former, whose father was a Pashtun (the majority ethnic denomination), and mother was Tajik, served the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance as a close confidant of the storied Tajik leader, Ahmed Shah Masood. Abdul Ghani has a Ph.D. from Colombia University, who later made his mark as a senior official in the World Bank and also as Finance Minister in the Karzai administration. Rumor has it that Karzai would prefer Ghani to Abdullah as the next president. If this is correct, then Karzai is hardly being neutral as he should be, if he wants to leave behind an open and transparent electoral process in Afghanistan. Granted that this is only the second time Afghanistan is experiencing a democratic electoral process, but unless transparency and accountability through an independent election commission is institutionalized, political instability and turmoil will become worse than it is.

Allegations of rigging by Abdullah, which had also been made in 2009, have occurred again in the runoff election. Abdullah and his supporters have contended that the head of the election commission, Ziaulhaq Amarkhil, was implicated in ballot-stuffing on an industrial scale. A figure of 2 million ballots is being bruited about in Kabul. Obviously under pressure when some incriminating conversations of Amarkhil with others along the above lines surfaced, he has resigned his position "for the sake of the country and for national unity". According to the New York Times, the tapes which the Abdullah campaign made available to reporters allegedly include the voices of men "chuckling about 'stuffing the sheep', which the Abdullah campaign says is code for stuffing ballot boxes".

Abdullah had earlier walked away much as he did in 2009, from the entire electoral process. He has now applauded the resignation of Amarkhil. He reportedly said that it offered an opportunity to reengage with the independent election commission. According to media reports, a further encouraging sign that the election may be salvaged after all, and not end up as a fiasco, is that the United Nations (UN), at the request of Karzai and Abdullah, has agreed to involve itself in the counting of ballots. Let's hope that with the UN's helping hand the election commission can regain its credibility, conduct a transparent election, and announce the rightful winner.

A successful outcome of this process is hugely important for beleaguered Afghanistan and its long-suffering people who deserve peace and tranquility free from civil war. A legitimately elected president would be the first step in negotiating a durable peace with the Taliban by involving them in the governmental process. Afghanistan's neighbors, particularly Pakistan -- which has been most affected by the civil war in Afghanistan through a spill-over of violent extremism -- would be relieved if peace and stability finally comes to Afghanistan.