Afghan presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah at a press conference in Kabul on September 30, 2019. His rival Ashraf Ghani has been declared the winner. Photo: AFP / Sajjad Hussain

Former Afghan vice-president and powerful warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum called on his supporters Wednesday to protest against the re-election of President Ashraf Ghani, but so far, response to his rallying cry in the streets was muted. 

Ghani was declared the winner of the presidential election on Tuesday – five months after it was held – prompting a subdued response from the international community as well as ordinary Afghans weary of the dragged-out process.

The result was immediately rejected by Ghani’s main rival, former chief executive Abdullah Abdullah, who declared he would form his own parallel government. 

And then Abdullah’s running mate Dostum – who has long held outsized sway over the country’s politics – also rejected the final tally and declared support for Abdullah’s move.

Dostum served as Ghani’s running mate in 2014, but the burly 65-year-old Uzbek warlord has switched allegiances many times since joining the Afghan Army in the 1970s – fighting for the Soviets against the mujahideen and then with the alliance that helped overthrow the Taliban.

He had been vice-president mostly in name alone, having spent much of the past four years in exile after being accused of rape and kidnapping.

Dostum said the announcement by the election commission amounted to a “coup,” and called on supporters to “hit the streets.”

“I, as your leader … ask you to support Dr Abdullah with all your life and power,” he said.

But there was little sign of major protests – or celebrations – across the country.

‘Election fatigue’

Ordinary Afghans have shown little passion for Abdullah, Ghani, or the election process in general, with most of them abstaining from voting in last year’s lackluster election that saw candidates pitch few new ideas.

The international community also remained unusually silent in the wake of the results, despite having pumped millions of dollars into the election process, with little in the way of public congratulations to Ghani or comments on Abdullah’s declaration of a parallel government.

More than 24 hours after the results were released, the presidential palace tweeted that Ghani had met with US peace envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to discuss the peace process. Ghani himself also tweeted that the European Union’s chief diplomat Josep Borrell had called to offer his congratulations.

“While it is up to Afghans to decide the election outcome, our priority – and what we believe to be the priority of most Afghans – remains peace and the peace process,” Molly Phee, deputy to Khalilzad, told a gathering at the US Institute of Peace in Washington late on Tuesday.

‘Reduction in violence’

The final results come just as Washington seeks a deal with the Taliban – possibly to be signed by February 29 – which would allow it to withdraw troops in return for various security guarantees, and a promise that the militants would hold peace talks with the Afghan government.

Dostum and Abdullah have not been the only ones to denounce the results.

Another warlord-turned-politician, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, said in a speech Wednesday that the vote should be declared “totally invalid.” He called for an “inclusive” government that would include the Taliban. He did not mention Abdullah.

Meanwhile, the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan (TEFA), an independent observer organization, blasted the national election body responsible for tallying and announcing results. 

TEFA “finds the announcement of the final election results a poorly thought-out decision,” the group said, pointing to a high number of unresolved complaints that were still being scrutinized. 

“Moreover, the international community, which happens to be the most important contributors to the Afghan elections, has remained silent.”

Ghani appeared at the Independent Election Commission on Wednesday to pick up the document certifying his presidency. 

In televised comments there, he thanked supporters again but made no mention of Abdullah, Dostum or the criticism of the process.

Abdullah’s intent to try to form a separate government brought back memories of the angrily contested 2014 election, which also saw Ghani declared the winner.

That time, Abdullah’s supporters held violent demonstrations before the US finally intervened to broker an awkward deal between the two rivals, with Ghani as the president and Abdullah as the chief executive.

More than five years on, the apathy of Afghans and reluctance of the international community to intervene meant it was not clear how much support Abdullah would get.

“We’re still in a democracy,” policy analyst Mariam Safi told Agence France-Presse, warning that Abdullah would have to find legal justifications as well as popular support for his move. “It’s a huge question mark,” said Safi, adding that in “the next couple of days we’ll start to see a few things come out that might signal where this is going.”

– AFP