Originally Published 2014-04-16 06:32:40 Published on Apr 16, 2014
The voluminous participation by the Afghans in the elections, in which all major candidates asserted their desire to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US, does not bode well for the Taliban, which describes signing of the BSA as "a huge crime".
Afghan presidential elections: Implications and the road ahead
"The recently concluded vote for third Afghan presidential election marks the beginning of the process of passing on the baton to a new leader through the ballot box for the first time in the country. Each of the earlier Presidents from the time of Mohammed Daud Khan were either forcibly removed or deposed in coups. Certainly, the process of achieving transition through the ballot box leaves much to be desired. Yet, the given the nascent nature of the country's political institutions and the extremely difficult conditions under which the process ought to be executed, indicates a slow but steady acceptance of democratic transition.

To begin with, the social composition of the big-ticket contenders in these elections is multi-ethnic.This not only points to a political acceptance of the heterogeneity characteristic of the Afghan social mosaic but also underscores limits to both the classic Islamist and Western approaches to making sense of the socio-political dynamic of the country. While the former approach insisted on seeing existent social cleveages along lines of tribe and ethnicity as stemming from ignorance of real teachings of Islam, the latter approach studied Afghanistan largely from this narrow social prism. The nature of political alliances conjured up on eve of elections indicate limits to dogmatic adoption of either of these points of view while attempting to discern developments in the country. Foremost, these alliances reiterate the shift occurring in Afghan politics wherein legitimacy rested on pillars of Islam and tribe to an increasing emphasis on ethnicity. This in turn stems from on-going re-negotiation in the social and political order as it had existed for long in the country. Thus the alliances stitched up by major contenders reflect a slow but steady growth in political maturity seen in acceptance of this socio-political reality. Finally but significantly they also underscore the other social reality often ignored i.e. while ethnicity is a political reality, ethnic groups do not necessarily operate in the political arena in a neat, compartmentalized sense.

The high voter turnout, with 7 of the 12 million eligible voters casting their ballot, came as a surprise given the extremely bloody run up to the elections, punctuated by violent attacks. In fact, the number of polling centres that were not active were relatively small in number -- only 205 out of 6,423, according to the Independent Election Commission (IEC). This is remarkable in light of the fragile security situation, particularly in the southeast of the country. These figures would put to rest initial speculations of a shadow being cast on the legitimacy of the process should large parts of the country in the south and east be unable or unwilling to cast their ballot. Equally surprising was the enthusiastic participation by women voters who waited hours to cast their vote. In light of this unexpectedly high level of participation, the IEC increased the voting time by one hour and had to rush in fresh ballot papers to several polling centres.

The Taliban on their part too sprung a surprise. There was a marked absence of any major spectacular attacks. While they made rhetorical claims of having staged close to 700 attacks on their website, this posturing appears to lack credibility and has been widely dismissed. The role of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) -- who secured elections without support from foreign combat troops -- drew praise from the government and ordinary Afghans alike. This was visible on sentiment on the streets of Afghanistan as well as on the social media. Undoubtedly, the ANSF's capabilities have improved, particularly while responding to attacks but to this alone does not seem to account for a relatively incident free election. It is not implausible that the Taliban may have momentarily taken a tactical decision by not to launch attacks that would invariably result in civilian casualties. Particularly following the outrage generated by the attack on Hotel Serena that resulted among others in the shooting of a young Afghan journalist and his family. The Taliban might have wanted to avoid further erosion of their public image. It is also possible that they may have been instructed by their patrons in Rawalpindi to save their gunpowder for the new incumbent in office, while at the same time demonstrating to the Americans their earnest desire and capability to rein in the Taliban. In this regard, it is also worth mentioning that the infamous Haqqani network, thought to be particularly active in south-eastern provinces, have also maintained an unusually low profile.

While the Taliban dismissed the elections as "fraudulent" and their purported success as "American propaganda" the facts and figures from the ground tell an altogether different story. The voluminous participation by the Afghans in the elections, in which all major candidates in the fray explicitly asserted their desire to sign the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the US, does not bode well for the Taliban propaganda that describes signing of the BSA as "a huge crime".

The successful conclusion of the elections and eventual acceptance of results --preliminary counting of votes puts Dr. Abdullah ahead thought this could change --would provide much political capital to slow down the momentum of the Taliban and their patrons. In fact, major candidates in the fray too have indicated a willingness to "respect" the validity of the electoral results. Therefore, whoever is eventually elected to the office of the President is likely to come in with a degree of political legitimacy that would allow him to tackle some of the key challenges head on. Were this creeping sense of maturity in the country's institutional apparatus and political system to be carefully built upon and consolidated it could help in long run to reignite faith towards long-term economic and strategic support to Afghanistan.

However, it must be remembered that the electoral process and its outcome although significant in steering future trajectory of events is by itself incapable of guaranteeing success. The Taliban still do pose a military, political and ideological challenge for the nascent Afghan state and political class. An indication of the Taliban's unwavering commitment to resort to arms comes from an excerpt of its spokesperson's interview: "The Holy Jihad was started for the liberation of our beloved homeland...If, on the other side, some faces and figure are replaced, it doesn't mean that the occupation is over and atmosphere is ready for setting up the Islamic system of life....Therefore until this lofty objective is attained, Jihad will continue as religious obligation and it will make no difference for us that who was heading the administration and supporting the infidels yesterday and who will lead it today."

However, a large number of Afghans who voted in this election do not share this Taliban worldview. Many have candidly stated that their vote is for the one who they believe can bring an end to conflict and deliver governance. The opportunity to make a leadership transition through the ballot to achieve this goal is watershed moment in Afghan political history. Election results if respected, as promised, could provide a renewed momentum and legitimacy to the new political leadership in Kabul.

However, it would be naïve to assume that a culmination of the democratic process, which by no means is perfect, would allow Afghanistan to tide over the sea of challenges it faces. Much would also depend on how the new incumbent would deal with key issues at hand, namely: delivering security, governance and inclusive economic growth -- all of which share a symbiotic relationship. The other crucial intervening variables would of course be external, namely, the nature and intensity of ties the new incumbent forges with Washington; the traction that new thaw in Tehran's relations with the US acquires; and the direction Rawalpindi decides to steer its policy both towards the Quetta Shura as well as the Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).

(The author is an independent analyst and a Doctoral Candidate at the Willy Brandt School of Public Policy, Erfurt, Germany)

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