The political crisis that threatened to derail the Afghan presidential elections seems to have been settled for now. Both candidates, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, have agreed to an audit of all votes cast and to form a unity government under the victor.
Optimism has been revived about the possibility of a smooth political transition in Afghanistan. However, a number of challenges still remain.
The most immediate is the auditing process itself. The failure to hold a credible audit can undo the agreement between the candidates. It is also important to complete the auditing as soon as possible. The new leader, as it is, would be burdened by the task of taking control of a country undergoing major transitions, but a significant delay in his inauguration is likely to make this task even tougher.
Moreover, the ratification of the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States also hinges on an early resolution of this situation. This responsibility lies with Hamid Karzai’s successor and a delay in the final result would push this back further.
The start to this has been far from satisfactory, as it was delayed by a few days in the beginning itself. Since then, the pace of the process has been slow and it is likely to take much longer than the three weeks initially estimated.
The lack of consensus between the candidates regarding the audit methodology halted the process twice within the first week itself. Although both candidates subsequently agreed to guidelines laid out by the UN, the fact that they have also expressed concerns about this proposal — after failing to come up with mutually agreeable guidelines themselves — suggest that the process could be derailed again in the future.
A more pressing challenge will be the nature of the power-sharing agreement. There is no agreement, as yet, on how powers will be divided. However, reports suggest that the losing candidate — or his nominee — will assume the role of chief of the executive council under the new president, and following constitutional amendments in 2016 the post of a prime minister will be created. This has been hailed as a possible solution to a highly centralised political structure that has granted overwhelming powers to the president.
The endurance of this new system would depend largely on the division of powers between the two positions. This is not the first power-sharing agreement in Afghanistan. The 1992 Peshawar Accords and the 1993 Islamabad Accords had provided for a coalition government, but were short-lived. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who was offered the position of prime minister, refused to abide by the accords on account of his position being subordinate to that of the president, and disagreements over the allocation of key ministries.
Under the new system, it is likely that the position of prime minister will be perceived to be at par with that of the president. However, it is still imperative that the distribution of powers does not relegate the subordinate post to a merely ceremonial position.
Finally, a more irreconcilable problem is likely to be the peace talks with the Taliban. It has persistently denounced Karzai as a “stooge” of the West and his government as unrepresentative. This has been used as one of the pretexts to reject overtures from the Afghan government.
It is unlikely that the change in leadership could provide any breakthrough. The group has already condemned the elections as a “waste of time” in which the selection is done by the Americans and not by the Afghans. Such pronouncements suggest that the Taliban’s perception of the new leader already seems like a foregone conclusion, which is unlikely to change irrespective of the system of government.
Despite such challenges, the significance of this agreement should not be overlooked. It has ensured that Afghanistan’s democratic transition does not come to a premature halt. A timely resolution of the immediate predicaments could guarantee that it remains a durable one.
Aryaman Bhatnagar is associate fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi
The views expressed by the author are personal