Usually after holding three elections, a young democracy gets the hang of it. The vote count is trusted. The loser accepts defeat with equanimity. The reins of power are transferred peacefully. The greater good has been decided, for now, by a majority.
The third democratic presidential election in Afghanistan, held June 14, seemed on track to achieve that ideal. Voter turnout was strong despite Taliban threats to disrupt the election. And the two candidates, both well educated and relatively clean, were the best the country had to offer.
But when the results were announced July 7, the country came close to splitting up. The ballot count seemed to defy logic. The apparent loser, Abdullah Abdullah, threatened to set up a parallel government, perhaps by force. Even the declared winner, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, cited vote fraud that was likely perpetrated on his behalf by local warlords.
The country seemed to be following Iraq in a near-collapse of its new democracy. All the investment in Afghanistan by the United States and other countries since 2001 might have been lost.
But then after two days of genial but forceful persuasion, Secretary of State John Kerry helped turn things around. The two candidates agreed to a full recount of ballots by the United Nations. And in a display of charity, they agreed that the runner-up will work under the new president as chief executive of the government. They even embraced each other.
Each man had to be reminded that democracy serves all the people. It is greater than personal ambition and any political divisions driven by ethnicity, clan, tribe, or religion. A nation is secure, stable, and tolerant when people know they have fairly chosen their leaders.
The deal to share power also reflects a bow to an important cultural trait in Afghanistan of not diminishing a person’s “good name.” One result of the deal may be that the country will move to a parliamentary system rather than its current American-style, winner-take-all presidency. Face-saving bargaining comes easier in such a system.
Last May, when President Obama announced the US would withdraw all remaining American forces from Afghanistan by the end of 2016, he also said that “the future of Afghanistan must be decided by Afghans.” Yet to keep the country from falling again into the hands of the Taliban and perhaps Al Qaeda, the US needed to offer one more big assist after this third election. Perhaps by the fourth one Afghanistan will finally get the hang of it. Democracy has a way of giving shape to a people’s unifying identity, if only they fully accept the ideals that come with it.