That it took the US Secretary of State to broker a deal between the two candidates of the Afghanistan presidential run-off election shows a number of things its neighbours must be conscious of in dealing with the successor to President Hamid Karzai. The episode also showed the fragility of the democratic process.

Perhaps the first thing the US showed was how heavily it was committed to the electoral process in Afghanistan. That interventions had to take place at such a high level revealed that its occupation of the country had failed to yield the result of getting the country to follow up with a democratic model.

It should be noted that the previous two colonial powers to occupy Afghanistan, the UK and the USSR, had not attempted to make Afghanistan a democratic state. The UK had not wanted democracy in India, where it was demanded by Western-educated natives who did not share the colonialists’ racism. The USSR was not a democracy, and saw no reason to allow Afghans a system borrowed from its greatest opponent. The British Raj introduced the British first-past-the-post system in the subcontinent, with the result that elections revolve around biradri at the constituency level, but the chief executive is chosen by representatives of all biradris. However, in the American-style presidential election, the biradri factor, as in Afghanistan, becomes a canker. Abdullah Abdullah, a Tajik with a Pakhtun mother and Uzbek running-mate, faced Ashraf Ghani, a Pakhtun with a Hazara running-mate. The Americans have found to their cost in Iraq, that the policy of declaring a minority a majority does not work. Just as the attempt to ‘overturn by declaration’ the Sunnis of Iraq has led to a fierce reaction, the attempt to go against the Pakhtun majority will not work.

Ashraf Ghani can take his World-Bank-economist credentials elsewhere. What counted in this election was his being an Ahmadzai Durrani. Somethings apparently never change. Afghanistan was found by Ahmad Shah Abdali, who was awarded the title Durre-Durran, and thus took the title Durrani. And so did all Abdalis, as fiercely egalitarian then as now. Since then, Durranis ruled Afghanistan. Mullah Omar was one, as was Karzai. Ahmad Shah’s own original capital was Kandahar, where the Taliban resistance is centred. And it is the hometown of the President.

However, Abdullah Abdullah, while the spearhead of the move to put a Tajik in place of a Pakhtun, does not realise that the essence of democracy is not voting, but the losing candidate accepting his loss (and the other guy’s victory). Afghanistan adopted the American system, where this is perhaps more needed than otherwise. Paradoxically perhaps, the reason is that the loser enjoys the right to life and liberty, and does not owe either to the winner. The American system itself has not been free of voter fraud, and as recently as 1948, Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have personally stuffed ballots in a close election for the Senate. As recently as 2000, the US presidential election was determined by the Supreme Court, showing that it had a vigorous dispute resolution mechanism. It would be unthinkable for a defeated candidate to do what Abdullah did, which was to threaten to declare victory. That is why there are legal means of succession, including elections: so that government officials know who to obey.

For this reason, in 2000, both candidates in the American election turned to the Supreme Court. It was a very close election, and it had so happened that Bush had actually got less votes than his opponent, though he won a majority of the electoral votes. Asked later about that, he said that he had fought the election on the basis of winning a majority in the electoral college.

Afghanistan actually has a French electoral system, with a second round between the two top contenders if no one wins a majority in the first round. That means the fairness of the poll matters. This becomes important in a close election. It is particularly unfortunate for the US that Indonesia, in some ways of more importance to it, is also going through a very close election. Both Joko Widodo and Prabowo Subianto have claimed victory, and it would perhaps need intervention to find a winner. Subianto is a retired general, like predecessors Soeharto (his father-in-law) and incumbent Susilo ‘Bambang’ Yudhyono. Subianto is also a commando, like Musharraf of Pakistan, the late Ariel Sharon of Israel and King Abdullah of Jordan. Unofficial results show Widodo as winning narrowly, but other unofficial counts show Subianto. The official result will only come after weeks. It will complete a changeover in a broad swathe of Asia, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and most recently India, all of which have had polls in the last year.

Abdullah Abdullah has claimed voter fraud at a time when Pakistan’s Imran Khan is saying the same about the 2013 election, and seemingly grounds his argument the same way: that he has lost is what proves the fraud. However, Abdullah has lost before: in 2009 to Hamid Karzai. He might know that William Jennings Bryan, Adlai Stevenson and John McCain lost twice (Bryan thrice), and were never elected. It would seem you can come back from one defeat (Nixon), but not the two that Abdullah now faces. It should not be forgotten that Abdullah lost in 2009 in what was said to be a very dirty election, marred by ballot fraud. Imran has borrowed from Afghanistan by calling for a vote audit, which is just a fancy phrase for a recount.

There are two echoes to be heard in Afghanistan from Pakistan. The first is the call for clean elections. The second is the claim of victory on the basis of just being. Abdullah sounds a lot like Imran Khan these days. However, the main problem is for the US. Though both Abdullah and Ghani have committed themselves to signing the Bilateral Security Agreement that would allow US troops to remain in the country beyond this year, one has to be elected. Kerry has brokered a deal where there will be a comprehensive vote audit and a national unity government. That was the original US provision, which called for the loser becoming vice-president, but that was ultimately changed because it did not work.

That means that Indian influence will be strong, no matter who the ultimate winner is. Pakistan has a pressing interest in the election, because it is engaged in Zarb-i-Azb at a time when it needs to know who will rule in Kabul. There is little to choose between Ashraf and Abdullah, but Pakistan might well prefer not to have so many eye specialists like Dr Aiman Zawahiri (and Abdullah) in the equation. Zawahiri is involved in Pakistan’s Afghanistan imbroglio, after all.

 The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.