The otherwise crowded streets of Kabul were empty on March 9, as the people of Afghanistan watched with bated breath a political crisis unfolding in the country. Ashraf Ghani, who was declared winner of the September presidential election, was preparing for the inauguration of his second term. His main rival Abdullah Abdullah, who rejected the results alleging election frauds, was doing the same for himself.
After 24-hour-long talks between the two sides failed to reach an understanding, both leaders went ahead holding separate swearing-in ceremonies, to the dismay of many Afghans who have seen a sharp rise in violence in the country’s conflict in recent years. Five months after conducting the presidential elections that saw a record law turnout amid threats of violence, the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan announced results last month, saying Mr. Ghani won 50.64% of the vote, or 9,23,592 ballots, while Mr. Abdullah received 39.52%, or 7,20,841 votes. Mr. Abdullah rejected the results and declared himself the real winner.
Many Afghans fear that this political deadlock could affect the already delayed intra-Afghan peace talks with the Taliban and add to the growing political instability.
On February 29, the U.S. signed a deal with the Taliban that will provide for the withdrawal of foreign troops. The deal also seeks intra-Afghan talks between the Taliban and the government in Kabul. “This two-government ceremony is very worrying,” shared a 45-year-old property dealer in Kabul, who identified himself as Homayun. “I am sitting here and watching it closely and I am scared for the future of our country,” he said from his office in west Kabul that has not seen much business in recent years. “The economy is in its worst shape, violence is increasing.”
For many others, the dispute was reminiscent of the 2014 crisis, when the same leaders clashed over the election results. The deadlock was resolved after the then U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, brokered a power-sharing deal between the two. Mr. Ghani became the President of a unity government and Mr. Abdullah its Chief Executive under the agreement. “I cannot accept either as the President after this show two ceremonies,” said Mohammad Rashid, a 29-year-old butcher from Kabul. “They both had the opportunity to work together in the last five years and they achieved nothing.”
The U.S. has condemned the parallel government. Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S.’s special envoy to Afghanistan who had been negotiating between the two Afghan rivals, attended President Ghani’s inauguration ceremony. “We strongly oppose any action to establish a parallel government and any use of force to resolve political differences,” Mike Pompeo, U.S. Secretary of State, said in a statement the same day. “The U.S.-Taliban Agreement and the U.S.-Afghanistan Joint Declaration create a historic opportunity. Prioritising an inclusive government and unified Afghanistan is paramount for the future of the country and particularly for the cause of peace.”
However, neither of the parties is willing to compromise this time. “According to our Constitution, the President is elected based on securing more than 50% votes, which our State Builder team (President Ghani’s team) received and he was declared winner by election authorities,” said Basir Mohammadi, a close aide of Vice-President Amrullah Saleh, and a member of Mr. Saleh’s Green Trend party.
“The former Chief Executive’s claim of fraud is totally baseless, because the electoral officers at IEC (Independent Election Commission) and the ECC (Election Complaints Commission) were selected by all 18 presidential candidates, including Mr. Abdullah. He is claiming fraud against the officials he himself appointed,” argued Mr. Mohammadi.
Despite the formation of parallel governments, both sides continue to talk to resolve the crisis. “President Ghani’s team is negotiating and wants to accommodate him [Abdullah] and his allies,” Mr. Mohammadi confirmed, adding that the eventual settlement between the two will not be be a power-sharing deal or another national unity government. “Our team is trying to accommodate him somewhere because we want to have a unified voice at the negotiation table with the Taliban,” he said.
Meanwhile, Afghans remain deeply concerned over the future of their country. “Aside from them [Ghani and Abdullah], the Taliban also claims to be the leaders of this country, so why should they talk to any of them,” said Mr. Rashid, the butcher from Kabul.
(Ruchi Kumar is a journalist based in Kabul)