Unity Government in Kabul

Afghan handover undemocratic but peaceful

Also available in Deutsch

The Afghan constitution barred serving President Hamid Karzai from standing again in 2014. Thus, many Afghans hoped that the third presidential election since the fall of the Taliban in 2001 would bring the first democratic handover in the country’s history. But when a victor was finally announced almost six months after the first round of voting, there was little mention of democracy in Kabul.

Large parts of the population were simply relieved to see what appeared to be a peaceful handover, and glad that the economic stagnation and political and personal uncertainty of the election period were over. Yet the election process, which some observers made into a milestone of the transition phase or a litmus test of the current state of democracy, did (especially in the early phases) demonstrate democratic advances and a string of positive aspects. Despite its strange origins, and the diversity of the rival political and social groups involved, the National Unity Government is not automatically condemned to failure. But it does face a string of daunting challenges.

On 21 September, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) declared Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai the winner of the 2014 presidential vote – without presenting an actual election result. This ended an election process that had actually been supposed to pave the way for the first democratic handover in the country’s history, but had become bogged down for months. Just a few hours earlier the two rivals from the June 14 run-off, Dr. Ashraf Ghani and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, had – after weeks of hard negotiations that repeatedly went to the brink of collapse – agreed to form a National Unity Government.

The inauguration of Ashraf Ghani followed on 29 September and ended the almost 13-year presidency of Hamid Karzai, who initially served as interim president for two years from December 2001 and then won the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections.

The IEC sent result of the second round of voting on 14 June to the election teams of both candidates on 21 September, after the agreement on forming a National Unity Government had been signed and the head of the Commission, Ahmad Yousuf Nuristani, had declared Ghani the winner of the presidential elections. While sources close to Ghani disseminated the results to the press and social networks the very same day, no official announcement of the final second-round result has ever been made. The IEC lists released by Ghani’s team show 3,935,567 valid votes for Ghani (55.27 percent) and 3,185,018 for Abdullah (44.73 percent).

The total of 7,120,585 valid votes in the final second-round count compares with 7,972,727 in the provisional result announced by the IEC on 7 July (4,485,888 or 56.44 percent for Ghani and 3,461,639 or 43.56 percent for Abdullah). So the audit process funded and supervised by the United Nations, which was concluded on 5 September, led to the disqualification of 852,142 votes, but no decisive change in the distribution (Ghani -1.17 percent, Abdullah +1.21 percent).

Evaluation of the election process

The first-round campaign conducted in February and March by initially eleven, later eight candidates was noticeably more professional than in 2009. Even if personal networks and alliance-building still dominated the campaign, interest in the candidates’ political ideas and policies was more intense than in previous Afghan elections, especially on the part of the media. A surprisingly high turnout on 5 April 2014, despite serious threats and intimidation by the Taliban, confirmed the level of interest in political participation and the wish for change. The unexpectedly stable security situation on election day was regarded as a great success for the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and enhanced their reputation in sections of the population. Before the final result of the first round was announced on 15 May, representatives of independent Afghan election monitoring groups put the number of fraudulent votes at about 10 percent of the total turnout of 6,892,816.

They also expected that electoral fraud had been committed on behalf of almost all the candidates and that manipulation had not decisively benefited or disadvantaged any one candidate. Thus the final result that put Abdullah Abdullah (45.00 percent) and Ashraf Ghani (31.56 percent) far ahead of third-placed Zalmai Rassoul (11.37 percent), ultimately reflected the will of the voters. Many voters and Afghan and international observers regarded the outcome of the first round as acceptable, and in some respects better than expected. In the eyes of numerous Afghans it boiled down to the conclusion that the first round had produced two losers and no winner. On the basis of the unexpectedly high turnout and its inability to decisively disrupt the election, many Afghans saw the Taliban as the real loser of the first round. The second loser was incumbent President Karzai, after his failure to secure Zalmai Rassoul, whom many Afghans regarded as his preferred candidate and possible future “puppet”, a place in the run-off. Ultimately, the simple fact that the election was held as planned on 5 April and the original election timetable broadly speaking observed had to be regarded as a success.

Straight after the second round on 14 June, “only” 17 days behind a timetable that had always been regarded as optimistic, the hitherto positively connotated election process began to fall apart. Within 48 hours of polling stations closing, the Electoral Complaints Commission received more than 2,500 complaints of fraud and the Abdullah camp in particular raised serious allegations against his opponent’s side, whom Abdullah accused of “industrial-scale” manipulation. Evidence of significant ballot-stuffing quickly relativised initial euphoria about what was again an unexpectedly strong turnout.

On 29 June the head of Abdullah’s campaign team announced that they would regard any further action by the IEC as illegal. After the IEC published a provisional result on 7 July showing Ghani ahead by something more than one million votes (56.44 percent for Ghani, 43.56 for Abdullah), the situation escalated dramatically. Before the day was out, two former warlords among Abdullah’s most powerful supporters – Atta Mohammad Noor, the governor of Balkh, and Abdullah’s vice-presidential running mate Mohammad Mohaqiq – declared that the Abdullah camp was entitled to form a government, raised the possibility of forming a rival government, and announced demonstrations.

On 8 July Abdullah even declared himself the victor of the presidential election, leading to fears that this could provoke violent clashes between the camps. Abdullah’s supporters did indeed hold demonstrations during the following days – in Kabul up to 10,000 – but they remained far smaller than the Abdullah camp had hoped and the international community feared.

After US President Barack Obama called Abdullah on 9 July to urge restraint and moderation, Secretary of State John Kerry negotiated with both candidates in Kabul between 10 and 12 July. After tough negotiations and constant toing and froing between Abdullah, Ghani and the outgoing President Hamid Karzai, Kerry and the two presidential candidates announced at a joint press conference on 12 July that they had agreed on to hold a comprehensive audit of the run-off and then form a National Unity Government.

Please, download the complete report as a PDF file above.


Nils Wörmer

Publication series

Country Reports


Afghanistan, October 29, 2014

Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah