Afghan’s election authority announced the preliminary results of its September 28 presidential election recently, in which current President Ashraf Ghani was on course to secure a second term. The result was indeed announced as a victory  for President Ghani after months of inconsistency and argument. His main challenger, Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah did not accept the results, however. The announcement came amid heat up of new diplomatic push by the United States to end the 18-year long insurgency in the country.

Taliban Peace Talks Are At An ‘Important Stage’: US Rep

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. representative for Afghan reconciliation said the peace talks have reached an “important stage,” after discussing with the country’s leaders in Kabul “efforts to finalize a deal with the Taliban.” The U.S. intensified diplomatic efforts to make a deal have been ongoing even as the Afghan government’s efforts to hold and then authenticate the fourth presidential election in the country were taking place since this summer’s election and even as armed violence by the Taliban continues. The two processes of the disputed election and ongoing relations with the Taliban to seek peace have influenced and shaped each other along the way, with the Afghan National Unity government seeking to form a new government to face off the Taliban in the peace negotiation and the Trump administration seeking a way to exit the country.

Ghani Promises To Serve All Afghans

“We pledge to create an administration that serves the people, answers to the people, and is inclusive of all Afghanistan,” President Ashraf Ghani said, addressing his supporters in the presidential palace after the announcement of the preliminary result, in which he won 50.64% of 1.8 million votes. “It’s a victory for the republic in Afghanistan.”

Hours later, Abdullah Abdullah, current chief executive of the national unity government, rejected the results and accused the election commission of fraud. “Based on the clean votes of people, we are the winners,” said Abdullah Abdullah, who has officially secured 39.5% of the cast votes. “With all our might, we will defend the votes of the people… the damage of fraud and suicide bombing is the same to the people of Afghanistan.”

More Disputes About The Election Results

Several other presidential candidates also rejected the results. The announcement moved the country’s election crisis, which has dragged on for months now and experienced a historic low turnout, toward a new phase of bitterness. After the announcement of the preliminary result, the next step will be registering complaints and investigating their legitimacy.

The presidential candidates filed more than 16,000 complaints within the Afghan Independent Electoral Complaints Commission. The Stability and Integration election ticket led by Abdullah Abdullah registered nearly 8,000 complains, candidate Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s team registered 4,000 complaints and President Ashraf Ghani’s team registered around 2,000 complaints.

Abdullah’s Focus: Denying Ghani A Second Term

Out of 1.8 million votes, Abdullah Abdullah’s team questions the validity of 300,000 votes. The Election Commission refused to invalidate the votes, and Abdullah’s supporters closed provincial offices of the election commission in a bid to prevent the commission from recounting the votes and announcing the preliminary result.

“Since the complaints processes take nearly 37 to 39 days, the dispute over the election drags on,” said Ali Yawar Adili, deputy country director of Afghanistan Analyst Network, a private think tank in Kabul, the Afghan capital. “In fact, the dispute has moved from the election commission to the electoral complaints commission … As we did not witness any street protests following the announcement of the preliminary results despite being rejected most of the candidates, they seem to eye at the electoral commission.”

Ghani’s team hopes to keep the result of the election as it has been announced while Abdullah’s team intensified their efforts to get the compliant commission to invalidate votes in a bid to prevent Ghani from securing a second term. The efforts are all aimed at approximately 11,000 votes; invalidation of only 11,000 votes will lead to a  second run-off election between Ghani and Abdullah and could potentially overturn the current results.

“Depending on the credibility and final outcome of elections, it can give relative legitimacy to a future government to decide to either pursue a consensus-driven inclusive reconciliation path or to create obstacles that would prolong the fighting,” said Omar Samad, former Afghan ambassador to France and fellow at Atlantic Council.”

Disputed Results Could Throw Off Peace Process

While the dispute over the election plunges the country in crisis, the U.S. and the Taliban make progress over a peace deal. After President Trump announced the resumption of talks during his thanksgiving visit to Afghanistan, Khalilzad has met off and on with the Taliban, looking to finalize a deal that they were about to sign before Trump called off talks after a previous Taliban attack.

“Inconclusive or disputed election results could also negatively impact talks unless a partial intra-Afghan process decides otherwise,” said ambassador Samad. “The more transparent and credible the results, the better for future talks. A broad-based approach also would help the peace process move forward.”

Local media reported that the U.S. and the Taliban are near a deal to announce a 10-day ceasefire and sign a deal, under which withdrawal of U.S. troops from the country and opening of direct talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban will begin. The U.S. and the Taliban seem near a deal, but the Afghan politicians in Kabul are divided over the election.

“The International community [led by the United States in Afghanistan] might wait for the final result of the election to have a legal government to talk with the Taliban,” said Habibullah Shinwary, head of ETWA-Election and Transparency. “The efforts might be focused on finalization of the election and to form a power-sharing government between the presidential candidates.”

The current political crisis over the election is reminiscent of Afghanistan’s disputed 2014 election, when both Ghani and Abdullah claimed victory, pushing the United States to broker a power-sharing arrangement that made Ghani President and Abdullah chief executive.

On the ground, Afghans pay the high price of political instability and uncertainty over a potential peace deal with the Taliban. According to the World Bank, out of its population of 35.7 million 54% of Afghans live in poverty; furthermore a 2019 report from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations reports that 13.5 million Afghans face food insecurity, 9.9 million of which have a severe food crisis and 3.6 million of which face an emergency level of food insecurity.

Eighteen years of war on Afghanistan’s shoulders has also cost Afghan lives in record number. In the latest episode of widespread combat between the Afghan government and the Taliban, six government forces were killed in a car bomb attack in northern Balk province, where the Taliban claimed they killed 10 government forces. The US continues to pay a heavy price, too. An American Green Beret Sergeant First Class Michael Goble was killed in action December 23 in Kunduz in northern Afghanistan in an attack claimed by the Taliban.

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