Poll deadlock ends but will pact survive?

An eleventh-hour agreement between the two presidential contenders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah has pulled Afghanistan back from the brink of a possible civil war. The agreement provides for a government of national unity that will include supporters of both sides. 

It has paved the way for declaration of results of the run-off vote. Ghani will take over as Afghanistan’s new president while Abdullah gets to appoint one of his supporters as the CEO with powers similar to the prime minister. With the announcement of the result, the election process has been completed. The presidential election process ran into trouble a couple of months ago when Abdullah rejected it citing widespread fraud.

He had even threatened to form a parallel government. A US-brokered effort resulted in a UN-supervised audit of every vote cast in the run-off. But that began unravelling with the two sides unable to agree on what constituted a suspect vote and sharp differences emerging over the question of diluting the powers of the president.

With both sides digging in their heels and the deadlock deepening, the possibility of Afghanistan sliding towards civil war loomed. Many feared that the Ghani-Abdullah struggle for power would manifest itself as a war between Pashtuns and Tajiks.

That dire scenario has receded now. However, it is still too early to breathe a sigh of relief. It is unlikely that either Ghani or Abdullah and their supporters will forget easily the bitterness of the past several months. Although the agreement promises Ghani and Abdullah parity in the making of appointments at the highest levels, the handout of jobs lower in the hierarchy could cause friction. The success of the unity government hinges on Ghani and Abdullah burying past differences to provide Afghanistan the strong and inclusive leadership it needs through a difficult transition.

Afghanistan’s new president and the unity government have several important issues to address in the coming months. Topmost is the signing of a security pact with the US that will allow foreign troops to remain in Afghanistan beyond 2014. While outgoing president Hamid Karzai opposed signing this pact, Ghani and Abdullah indicated they would do so. This is a decision that needs to be made quickly.

There is the issue of resuming talks with the Taliban. Besides, the Afghan economy is in trouble too. Business sections will be looking for firm assurances on political stability from the new leadership. Mere verbal assurances will not be convincing. Ghani and Abdullah must function as partners to steer Afghanistan through the rocky road ahead.

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