Rajeshwari Krishnamurthy  - After much debate, outcry and allegations of election fraud, on May 15 the two leading candidates to become the next president of Afghanistan - Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani - accepted the poll results declared by the Independent Election Commission (IEC), and began readying themselves for the run-off.

According to the IEC, in the first round of elections that took place on April 5, Abdullah won 45% of the votes, followed by Ghani with 31.56%, among the eight candidates running for office. Under Afghan law, if no candidate manages to win more than 50% of the vote the two leading candidates will contest in a run-off.

The run-off is scheduled for June 14. With results scheduled to be announced as late as the end of June, the new president will be sworn in on August 2. The mid-June date for the run-off has both domestic and international implications.

Potential upshots

Domestically, the run-off will illustrate the amount of support each candidate enjoys among the electorate, especially among the Pashtuns - the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. Although both are leading contenders, in the first round of elections the Pashtun vote was divided among eight candidates. The run-off is where the role of ethnicity will come to the forefront.

Abdullah Abdullah is half Tajik and half Pashtun in ethnicity, while Ashraf Ghani is a Pashtun belonging to the nomadic Kuchi tribes. Pashtuns who believe they aren’t adequately represented in parliament might vote in favour of Ghani - given the fact that Abdullah, despite his Pashtun ancestry, is viewed more as a Tajik.

Adding to the complexity are the numbers: given the lead Abdullah already has, he will have to earn only a small increase in the percentage of the vote to establish a win - but he will have to attract Pashtun votes. Ghani on the other hand will have to make up the gap in the votes between him and Abdullah.

Abdullah’s confidence in his prospects is evident in his announcement of a light-footed strategy for the run-off where he has stated that he will not travel as much for campaigning; Ghani, exhibiting his acknowledgment of the effort he will have to undertake, has declared he will visit as many provinces as possible to attract votes.

Moreover, the ongoing alliance-making process has headed into unchartered territory. While Ghani contested the first round with former warlord Rashid Dostum as his vice presidential candidate, Abdullah has allied with the former governor of Nangarhar and Kandahar provinces and former warlord, Gul Agha Sherzai - who was eliminated from the race in the first round.

This, combined with third-placed Zalmai Rassoul’s backing of Abdullah, could earn the latter some Pashtun votes. The Alliance of the Hezb-e-Islami council recently pledged its backing for Ghani, which could be an indication of Pakistan’s candidate of preference. There are likely to be more such deals struck for political purposes, and will become more revelatory as the run-off inches closer.

The kind of alliances being formed in the light of the run-off could lead to tensions. As the candidates continue to strike deals with former warlords to ensure electoral victory, the presence of alleged criminals in the race for the offices of governing bodies have already made many in the country, especially women, uneasy. Their fears that these alliances with warlords - overlooking credentials, and purely for electoral gains - will stymie the country’s progress towards more liberal, effective and transparent governance, are not unfounded.

Implications for the

US-Afghanistan dynamic

On the international level, implications will heavily depend on the timeframe in which events unfold. With results scheduled to be announced as late as the end of June, the earliest the new president will be sworn in will only be by mid-July. The decision on the numbers of troops to continue to be stationed in the country will hang in the lurch until the next president signs the US-Afghanistan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) - that which both the candidates have agreed to in their campaigns.

While US President Barack Obama has announced Washington’s timetable for troop withdrawal - including details on the troop levels the US intends to maintain in Afghanistan after the signing of the BSA - the numbers will still depend on the final agreement that the future leadership in Kabul will likely bargain.

Regardless, the US plan to withdraw in such haste does not bode well for the war-torn country. The Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), despite having become extremely effective, is still not entirely capable of handling all the security threats and attacks independently.

This was emphasized in the US Department of Defence’s November 2013 report to the US Congress, which states that the “ANSF capabilities are not yet sustainable, and the logistics system remains dependent upon ISAF [the International Security Assistance Force] in many areas. Much work remains to be done on the systems, processes and institutions necessary to make progress enduring.”

Regional implications of run-off

and US withdrawal

The results of the first round of elections are definitely of interest to the region - especially for India and Pakistan. Abdullah - who won most votes in the first round - has had long-standing relations with India, which puts Pakistan at unease. Ghani doesn’t share such a relationship with New Delhi.

Although Abdullah appears to be the popular choice, given the statistics and circumstances, it wouldn’t be wrong to interpret that both candidates stand an equal chance of winning this election. Therefore, whichever side the Pashtun votes swing towards - or don’t - the margin of difference will have to be wide and prominent in order to avoid any allegation of fraud - as experienced in the 2009 Afghan presidential election.

The new dynamic of the 2016 troop withdrawal deadline means the new leadership in Kabul will have to bargain with the US on the BSA, or convince neighbouring countries to step forward for a regional solution, or both - and both of which are mammoth tasks.

India will stick by its no-boots-on-the-ground policy. The extent to which China will go to ensure security in Afghanistan is yet to be seen, but given Beijing’s worries regarding the Uyghur region, it might play a proactive role. Iran, for its part, will fortify its eastern borders more stringently; Tajikistan and Uzbekistan will follow suit to their capacity. Here, a lot will depend on Pakistan’s intentions. In fact, the upcoming times could well be a litmus test for the potential of normalization of India-Pakistan relations.

Essentially, the new leadership in Kabul will have to begin negotiations with regional actors immediately after assuming office. However, given the complexities involved in the upcoming election, the competition will be fierce and the probability of the winner including the loser in the next government is low. In such a scenario, imagining a strong new government in Kabul is not easy.

The country is unlikely to make a return to the situation of the mid-1990s, but external threats loom portentously. Countries in the region will pitch in their assistance, but they too have limitations. Therefore one can only wait and watch, and hope that Afghanistan as a whole battens down its hatches, puts aside internal differences, and collectively handles the impending uncertainties as a single entity, while regional players act in a mature and practical manner.–Asia Times Online