Widespread evidence of fraud marred Afghanistan's August 20 presidential vote and subsequently raised disturbing questions about the future legitimacy of Afghanistan's executive branch. It now seems that the country's leading political actors are exploring a way to restore the election's integrity. Ironically, it appears as though a back-room bargain, rather than continued reliance on the ballot box, may be the preferred way to solve the crisis of legitimacy.
What is encouraging competing Afghan factions to talk is the apparent likelihood that a large share of the vote for incumbent Hamid Karzai will be declared invalid, thus necessitating a presidential run-off. Instead of actually proceeding with the run-off -- a process that could drag out the election process into the spring - Karzai and his primary challenger, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, may feel inclined to strike a bargain. Such a deal might preserve the incumbent in office, but with far greater checks on his authority than is presently the case.
A political accommodation would appeal to Abdullah since he would be hard-pressed to prevail in a run-off. In addition, the prospect of holding a second-round of voting in the winter is something the international community is desperately eager to avoid. The chief fear is that the logistical and security challenges of conducting the second round in cold weather would be impossible to surmount. Thus, the election could turn into a source of instability for Afghanistan.
In an interview with EurasiaNet at his Kabul residence on October 14, Abdullah appeared cagily open to the idea of resolving the legitimacy question through a bargain. His immediate priority, he emphasized, was to ensure a fair vote count from the August 20 poll. Beyond that, however, he seemed open to various possibilities.
"I will take it up from that point [i.e. the announcement of results]. It's a different environment. That means it might go to a second round. If it doesn't go to a second round, it is a different scenario," Abdullah said. "I am not ruling anything in; I am not ruling anything out. I am focusing on today. Post-announcement it is a different environment."
Speaking of the post-recount period, a close associate of Abdullah told EurasiaNet that "different scenarios can come into play at that stage." The source said the options being discussed included a government of national unity, a caretaker government or a loya jirga (grand council). The source, though, was careful to distance Abdullah's supporters from the last option.
In response to repeated questioning, Abdullah told a news conference on October 15 that he personally preferred a second round of polling and that he had not dismantled the infrastructure for renewed campaigning.
Results that necessitate a second round would presumably be advantageous for Abdullah. He would theoretically have more leverage to obtain political concessions in the event he opts to cut a political deal with Karzai. While Abdullah would be disinclined to join any Karzai-led government, a reconfigured power-sharing arrangement that reduced the powers of the presidency is one option that Abdullah might go along with. Abdullah is on record as favoring a constitutional rebalancing that gives the legislative branch more authority, at the expense of the executive.
Any process that transparently eliminates fraudulent votes from the August poll would also help the international community. The UN especially has lost credibility over charges and counter charges between the organization's top man in Afghanistan, Kai Eide, and his deputy, Peter Galbraith, who accused Eide of trying to conceal fraud and favor Karzai.
While Kabul has long been rife with rumors about back-room political bargaining, the first signs of the broad contours of a deal became evident during a news conference October 11. During that event, Eide for the first time acknowledged widespread fraud. Eide's willingness to call fraud a fact, before the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) had completed its evaluation process, suggests he knew the ECC would eventually acknowledge widespread irregularities.
The second inkling of this likely scenario was Supreme Court nominee Maulavi Mustafa Barakzai's sudden October 12 resignation from the ECC on grounds that the organization was biased. Since Barakzai is considered a Karzai loyalist, his resignation suggested that the ECC recount, which is nearing completion, would not validate a first-round Karzai election victory.
Karzai himself then attempted to exert pressure on the process, telling ABC news on October 13, that the "resignation has cast a serious doubt on the functioning of the commission." This put pressure back on the Abdullah camp and the murmurs once again shifted to a scenario of a first-round Karzai victory.
Forcing the ball back into the incumbent's court at his October 15 news conference, Abdullah denounced Karzai's efforts to impugn the ECC. While indicating that he was not completely satisfied with the ECC's methodology, Abdullah told reporters he would base his judgment on the final ECC count and that he wanted an outcome where "the results are close to the real results."
Indicators suggest that the two contestants in Kabul would prefer to work out an agreement before the announcement of the oft-delayed final results, now scheduled for the weekend of October 17-18. Whether or not a deal can be reached will depend on a variety of variables, including the extent of pressure the international community is willing to exert.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.