- By Omar Samad
The French called it "cohabitation," the Kenyans termed it "grand coalition cabinet," and other countries have at times adopted what was called a "consensus decision-making" contingency measure, through the formation of a unity government aimed at overcoming contentious elections or when faced with an imminent crisis. Such is the case today in Afghanistan, where two rounds of inconclusive balloting has led to political tensions that have elevated security risks and undermined economic activity and government services.
Cognizant of the dangerous fallout caused by a broken electoral system that facilitated massive fraud, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry paid two visits to Kabul over the past six weeks to mediate between the leading contenders, Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani.
During the latest intervention last week, following late night discussions in Kabul, the two sides signed, in good faith, a document that spells out the confines of a political deal, but leaves the technical disagreements, tied to an on-going ballot audit and the prickly details of power-sharing arrangements, to be sorted out by their respective agents. It is expected that a working group made up of 30 members will start negotiations on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, Ghani, under pressure from his "winner-takes-all" allies like Ahmad Zia Massoud (a former vice president who joined Ghani’s campaign before the runoff election), poured cold water on the concept of joint-partnership and said, "the position of the chief executive will solely depend on the discretion of the president."
And the devil is indeed in the details — lest statesmanship, political will, and trust fall victim to expediency, polarization or manipulation.
The latest agreement, presented as a joint declaration, contains three planks: 1) Adherence to the Constitutional mandate; 2) Working jointly on the structure and modalities of a national unity government; and 3) Moving the audit process forward by sticking to a timetable that can produce a legitimate outcome as soon as possible — preferably by the end of August before the NATO Summit in Wales , where the future of the Afghan mission will be discussed in detail.
An addendum spells out high-level ingredients for a political framework that will require further elaboration by a joint working group over the coming days.
Given the electoral gridlock that emerged following claims of fraud and rigging, which at one point resulted in the resignation of the head of the electoral commission secretariat, the signing of the documents is considered a step forward.
While part of the credit goes to Secretary Kerry’s timely twin interventions, Afghans also recognize the sensibility of the two contenders for demonstrating flexibility and a spirit of pubic camaraderie after months of intense and, at times, bitter rivalry.
The contentious issues that are outstanding and still need to be ironed out are:
1. Planning for the upcoming transfer of power and identifying the new government’s priority challenges and collaborative frameworks.
2. Agreeing on a national governance agenda, drawing from the two sides’ respective electoral platforms and programs in sectors such as security, economy, foreign affairs, and social services. ?Figuring out unresolved issues should be left to professional advisory groups that could also involve non-partisan figures.
3. Defining the parameters of power sharing as part of a unity government structure. The two sides will need to step away from a zero-sum option, show flexibility and use creative methods to clearly define the authority of the president and the newly proposed post of chief executive. Models from other countries can used if applicable to the Afghan context.
4. Defining and agreeing on professional criteria for the appointment of higher level officials in the civil and security sectors.
5. Relying on a third party mediation group made up of impartial and experienced figures to resolve or adjudicate unsettled matters.
On the thorny election audit side, it is incumbent upon both parties at this stage to desist from brinksmanship and manipulation. It is also critical to prevent undue third party interference or meddling, especially by political outfits that have a tendency to act as spoilers. The following steps can help assure a legitimate audit outcome acceptable to all:
1. Work closely with the United Nations, domestic and international monitoring and observer groups, and Afghan electoral bodies to assure best practices and lessons learned based on international standards to accelerate and complete the audit, recount and invalidation processes in a timely manner.
2. Agree to recount measures and invalidation criteria that are applicable to both sides and do not discriminate or fall short of assuring transparency and validity.
3. In the absence of a credible adjudication process, any attempt to deliberately derail, manipulate, or stall the process for political ends should be dealt with diligently and be referred to a professional adjudication body providing oversight and advice to the current complaints commission.
4. The U.N. has a special role to play in this regard, and the U.N. bodies involved with elections need to step up and enable the most credible recount and invalidation processes to determine the Afghan voters’ clean ballot. Failure to do so will tarnish the intergovernmental body’s standing and endanger the political transition.
Since Abdullah and Ghani agreed to take the middle ground and pledged to work as partners to deal with Afghanistan’s difficult road ahead, they need to stay the course, engage in a meaningful dialogue that deepens the spirit of collaborative governance, and avoid the pitfalls. The basis for such a win-win scenario is trust and the will to overcome divisions, differences, and partisanship.
If they are able to create the leadership synergy and consensus-based political partnership that Afghanistan so desperately needs in order to deal with security challenges, unemployment and investment down-trends, corruption and weak governance, they will be seen as saviors and respected role models at a time when the region is rife with new threats and ominous examples of failed politics.
There are few viable options left, and time is running out for a country full of promises and a nation that so warmly embraced democratic values at the ballot box. Maybe, the new model, once ratified, can be called "Afghan partnership".
Omar Samad is Senior Central Asia Fellow at New America Foundation. He was the Ambassador of Afghanistan to France (2009-2011) and to Canada (2004-2009) and Spokesperson for the Afghan Foreign Ministry (2002-2004). Follow him on Twitter: @omsamad.
The views expressed in this article are the authors’ own.