The suspense over Afghanistan’s presidential elections is finally over.
Afghans voted in two rounds of elections in April and June to pick a successor to Hamid Karzai, choosing between Ashraf Ghani, an economist and former finance minister with support in the south and east owing to his Pashtun origins, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister with a strong Tajik support base.
The elections were marred by allegations of widespread fraud, leading to a long deadlock and eventually a fresh audit of votes. Afghanistan and international observers were worried that the impasse could worsen the country’s divisions, further fracture it along ethnic lines, and reverse the gains in state-building seen in recent years, making it even more vulnerable to the Taliban insurgency.
A recount in an election marked by fraud is bound to declare a winner, but the latter’s legitimacy would be in doubt exacerbating the conflict.
Mr Ghani and Mr Abdullah have been alert to this and showed great maturity in exploring a political solution, duly nudged by the United States and others.
They signed a power sharing agreement on Sunday which declares Mr Ghani as the new president but gives Mr Abdullah the right to pick a ‘chief executive officer’, which will be equivalent to a prime minister.
It is not clear yet if Mr Abdullah will himself be the CEO, but the agreement allows both sides to equally share key ministries.
There are doubts if this will work in practice, given the heated nature of the campaign. Both leaders will need to manage their own relationship and placate powerful factions who backed their respective campaigns.
The situation is expected to be sensitive for a while; the election commission is hesitating to announce the final vote count.
But the unity government is a critical first step for Afghanistan to shape its future beyond the drawdown of American troops this year.
Afghanistan faces huge challenges no doubt, but this is an important attempt to consolidate Afghan state capacity which, in the final analysis, is the only real insurance against an insurgency like the Taliban.