Afghanistan is in political limbo. Many had hoped that the presidential election last month would help to further democratise and stabilise the country.
Election in Afghanistan takes an unpredictable turn
Afghanistan is in political limbo. Many had hoped that the presidential election last month would help to further democratise and stabilise the country. But, with numerous allegations of vote-rigging and apparently low voter turnout, this hope seems to have been dashed. The final results will not be announced for at least another two weeks, possibly longer, depending on the findings of the Electoral Complaints Commission. And even a declaration that President Hamid Karzai is the winner will be little comfort to most Afghans or, for that matter, the international community, especially the US, the leading foreign actor in Afghanistan. Mr Karzai has been so tarnished by presiding over a corrupt and dysfunctional government that he now lacks the credibility and legitimacy to deal with Afghanistan's daunting problems in a second term. When he took the reins of power nearly eight years ago, Mr Karzai seemed a promising figure. A US-led invasion had toppled the Taliban government of Afghanistan, which had sheltered the terrorist group al Qa'eda as it masterminded the September 11, 2001, attacks on the US. Mr Karzai enjoyed the backing of most Afghans and the US and its allies, and he was expected to move his country towards institutionalised rather than personalised politics. He was in no danger of being removed from power if he discarded the past Afghan political practice of personal and family glorification and patronage. He was well placed to make merit, rather than family, tribal, ethnic, linguistic, sectarian and factional ties, the basis of a credible administration. A merit-based approach, while upholding Islam and being culturally relevant, would have been better suited to the needs of Afghanistan. There is no question that Mr Karzai took the helm under extremely difficult circumstances, and he tried to remain personally clean and was well-intentioned, as he may be to the present day. But he soon lost his way, failing to demonstrate the capacity to build a capable and unified government whose members would be devoted to national unity and reconstruction rather than to individual gain and ambition. In the absence of a clear vision and strategic direction, Mr Karzai quickly found himself surrounded by political and ethnic entrepreneurs. They tried vigorously to use power and connections with various foreign actors to steer Mr Karzai towards building a powerful central government revolving around a strong presidency. Totally ignored was the alternative advice that in a country that is as much a mosaic as Afghanistan is, where weak state and strong society had historically been the norm, highly centralised governance could easily fail. Little attention was paid to the fact that such a system would not bind a range of local power holders - or "strong men" - to national obligation and responsibility; nor would it effectively connect the people with the government at any level. A better approach would have been a decentralised parliamentary system, with a prime minister heading the executive below the presidency as a symbol of national unity and continuity. The inappropriate system of governance helped to create a massive political and security vacuum. So, too, did Mr Karzai's inclination to seek solace in the past Afghan mode of political operation. And so did the international community's failure to devise an effective long-term strategy involving co-ordinated reconstruction and security-building, to deal with the Afghan situation and prevent Pakistan from continuing its aid to the Taliban. This vacuum has been skilfully exploited by the Taliban and their supporters to present themselves as a more nationalist and Islamic force of salvation than the Karzai government. Now, neither the Karzai leadership nor the revamped American approach under President Barack Obama and America's Nato and non-Nato allies can easily overcome the Afghan people's widespread disillusionment and the Taliban's armed struggle. If it was expected that last month's presidential election - the second since the 2004 election, which Mr Karzai won with 55 per cent of votes on a 70 per cent voter turnout - would help bring some remedy, that expectation has been confounded. The premature claim of victory by the Karzai camp one day after the election and the provision of steady evidence by Mr Karzai's opponents, led by Dr Abdullah Abdullah, of widespread vote-rigging by Mr Karzai's supporters - a fact that has been confirmed by international observers - has set Afghanistan on a course more unpredictable than ever before. There are three options. The first is that Mr Karzai is declared the outright winner with more than 50 per cent of the vote. This is the direction in which the vote counting of the Afghan Independent Election Commission, whose members are appointed by Mr Karzai and are not trusted by his leading opponents, is heading. This would leave the Afghan people bitterly polarised and the leading opponents disenchanted to the extent that they would reject the election results. Dr Abdullah, whose camp is confident that he would have won had the election not been rigged, has called on his supporters to act only through legal avenues, but he may not be able to prevent the government from cracking down on his supporters or to restrain the latter from civil unrest and possibly even armed struggle. The result could be a greater post-election calamity than the pre-election turmoil. There could be violence sufficient to leave the international forces high and dry and enormously benefit the Taliban and their associates. In the meantime, Afghanistan would have to endure another four years of ineffectual governance under Mr Karzai, unless the US and its allies leaned on him heavily to change his ways. If he changed course under external pressure, however, his political legitimacy would not be improved. The second option is that the Electoral Complaints Commission confirms that irregularities occurred and recommends a runoff between Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah or calls for a new election. As the most likely scenario, a runoff could solve the problem to some extent, provided that the contest was managed with integrity and that both sides abided by the outcome. It would be an expensive exercise but could be worthwhile under the circumstances. The third option is for Mr Karzai and Dr Abdullah to form a coalition government, with the participation of two other runners-up, Dr Ramazan Bashardost and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai. But the problem is that the last two, together with Dr Abdullah, have said that they will not work under Mr Karzai. Yet a coalition government is a scenario that some in the international community, including Washington, may seek. While a coalition may provide some kind of immediate face-saving, it is unlikely to work in the long run, given the differences in approach between these leaders and their constituencies. Afghanistan is indeed entering an uncharted phase, creating an additional challenge not only to Afghans but to the US and its allies. The country's future will very much depend on how this phase is managed. Professor Amin Saikal is the director of the Centre for Arab & Islamic Studies at the Australian National University in Canberra