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Analysis: Tough road ahead for unity gov't

Farhad Peikar
Ghani and Abdullah's power-sharing agreement narrowly avoided civil chaos. But will it live through its first weeks?
30.09.2014  |  New York

 

After a months-long presidential election, the Afghan public breathed a sigh of relief after the creation of the new Unity Government, which marked the end of a process plagued by fraud allegations and irregularities and returned Afghanistan to the brinks of civil war. However, the two rival groups that make up the new government still face mutual animosity and distrust as they struggle to survive the fragile first weeks of the new administration. 
As the new government begins its work this week, it is already doomed unless Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah address three urgent matters: the ongoing political rivalries among their supporters, a looming national budget shortage, and the flimsy legal basis for the new unity government. The mid-term prospects are equally daunting. In the coming months, the two leaders need to tackle widespread administrative corruption, address the surge in attacks by militant groups, revive the spattering economy, set a framework for talks with the Taliban, and establish a comprehensive foreign policy. But before it can even begin to address these challenges, the new government must ensure the viability of its own existence.
Lasting rivalries
Lasting nearly one year, the election process has weakened the seams of Afghanistan’s fragile sociocultural unity. It revived age-old ethnic tensions and rekindled memories of the bloody civil conflict of the 1990s. Members of Ghani and Abdullah’s team exchanged countless insults during the vote recount process. For months, social media sites abounded with derogatory images, posters and comments aimed at insulting leaders along ethnic lines. Some Abdullah supporters even pushed for creating a parallel government when rumors arose that Ghani would become the next president. Abdullah’s chief supporter and Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor repeatedly warned of massive demonstrations, in which protesters would eventually take over all government institutions and install Abdullah’s administration by force. 
Even after signing the unity government agreement, Abdullah and Ghani failed to restrain their supporters from making disparaging comments in interviews or on social media sites. Governor Noor, who has openly expressed his dislike of Ghani, told Voice of America's Dari-language service that Ghani was not an elected president. Noor added that he was therefore within his right to remain governor of Balkh province. 
Although political mudslinging is a normal feature in democratic elections, the rhetoric in Afghanistan crossed a fragile line in a country where the wounds of interethnic conflict are still uncured. 
Both Abdullah and Ghani must demonstrate statesmanship and publicly offer friendly overtures and political compromises. They could, for example, remove their campaign pages from social media sites and force their supporters to tow the new government line. 
Fiscal crisis 
The national treasury is quickly running out of cash. Without a bailout, the government may be unable to pay the October salaries of thousands of civil servants. This emergency does not affect the 350,000 army and police who are paid from a separate fund. Still, it raises serious concerns over the new government's ability to function and win back public trust. Afghanistan has reportedly requested $537 million in emergency funds from the United States to pay for government expenses through December, but no assurances have yet been made. 
As early as today, both Ghani and Abdullah need to launch talks with Afghanistan’s foreign donors and should consider a loan from the World Bank if they fail to secure the needed amount in aid.  
They should find ways to tackle the deficit on multiple fronts, including by cutting unnecessary government expenses. The new administration is already larger than the one run by President Karzai. The new CEO, his two deputies and their support staff are likely to add pressure on the already overloaded government budget. 
 One way to cut expenses would be to keep officials from Karzai’s administration in place and postpone the appointment of a new Cabinet and heads of independent organizations by a few months. This could temporarily avoid further expenses incurred during the transition to a new administration. 
Legal basis
The unity government brokered by the United States, United Nations and other international stakeholders is anything but ideal. However, the agreement reached by the leaders is commendable simply because it rescued the country from a new round of civil unrest that could undo all the achievements of the past 13 years. 
The sole base for its creation is an agreement signed by the two leaders, an accord whose legality and legitimacy remains contested. The new post of Executive Chief Officer (CEO) does not have any basis in the Afghan Constitution or election law. The constitution grants the president 20 specified powers, making him the most powerful person in the country. The agreement states that the president will delegate some of the executive authorities to the CEO, but remains vague on details. 
While the agreement indicates a 50-50 split on major government positions, extending this ratio to the president and CEO position would create two masters with equal footings. The absence of a clear, hierarchical division of power has already caused a fair share of confusion and ebbed the two political teams' respect for the new agreement. Prior to its signing, both teams had undertaken not to announce the final results in a bid to save Abdullah’s team the embarrassment. Abdullah’s camp called the announcement a violation of the accord and condemned the IEC’s decision. The revelation of final results on Ghani's Facebook page was so serious that it prompted Abdullah to reconsider his participation in the Sept. 29 inauguration, and was only resolved in the late hours when President Karzai personally stepped in. 
There were also reports on Sept. 28 that members of Abdullah’s team and those of Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ghani’s first vice president, scuffled over the office space designated for country’s second-highest government official. More serious disputes could emerge in the coming days and weeks, unless both Ghani and Abdullah start cooperating with each other in ernest. In theory, no laws or agreements should supersede the Constitution. However, the two leaders should place the public interest ahead of their own political alliance, adhering to any behind-the-scenes deals they undertook for the next two years and until the constitutional Loya Jirga specifies the new constitutional powers of the president and the prime minister.  

After a months-long presidential election, the Afghan public breathed a sigh of relief following the creation of the new Unity Government, which marked the end of a process plagued by fraud allegations and irregularities that returned Afghanistan to the brinks of civil war. However, the two rival groups that make up the new government still face mutual animosity and distrust as they struggle to survive the fragile first weeks of the new administration. 

As the new government begins its work this week, it is already doomed unless Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah address three urgent matters: the ongoing political rivalries among their supporters, a looming national budget shortage, and the flimsy legal basis for the new unity government. The mid-term prospects are equally daunting. In the coming months, the two leaders need to tackle widespread administrative corruption, address the surge in attacks by militant groups, revive the sputtering economy, set a framework for talks with the Taliban, and establish a comprehensive foreign policy. But before it can even begin to address these challenges, the new government must ensure the viability of its own existence.

Lasting rivalries

Taking nearly one year to complete, the election process has pulled at the seams of Afghanistan’s fragile sociocultural unity. It revived age-old ethnic tensions and rekindled memories of the bloody civil conflict of the 1990s. Members of Ghani and Abdullah’s team exchanged countless insults during the vote recount process. For months, social media sites abounded with derogatory images, posters and comments aimed at insulting leaders along ethnic lines.

Some Abdullah supporters even pushed for creating a parallel government when rumors arose that Ghani would become the next president. Abdullah’s chief supporter and Balkh governor Atta Mohammad Noor repeatedly warned of massive demonstrations, in which protesters would eventually take over all government institutions and install Abdullah’s administration by force. 
Even after signing the unity government agreement, Abdullah and Ghani failed to restrain their supporters from making disparaging comments in interviews or on social media sites. Governor Noor, who has openly expressed his dislike of Ghani, told Voice of America's Dari-language service that Ghani was not an elected president. Noor added that he was therefore within his right to remain governor of Balkh province. 

Although political mudslinging is a normal feature in democratic elections, the rhetoric in Afghanistan crossed a fragile line where the wounds of interethnic conflict are still uncured. Both Abdullah and Ghani must demonstrate statesmanship and publicly offer friendly overtures and political compromises. They could, for example, remove their campaign pages from social media sites and force their supporters to tow the new government line. 

Fiscal crisis 

The national treasury is quickly running out of cash. Without a bailout, the government may be unable to pay the October salaries of thousands of civil servants. This emergency does not affect the 350,000 army and police who are paid from a separate fund. Still, it raises serious concerns over the new government's ability to function and win back public trust. Afghanistan has reportedly requested $537 million in emergency funds from the United States to pay for government expenses through December, but no assurances have yet been made. 

Ghani and Abdullah need to launch talks with Afghanistan’s foreign donors and should consider a loan from the World Bank if they fail to secure the needed amount in aid.

As early as today, both Ghani and Abdullah need to launch talks with Afghanistan’s foreign donors and should consider a loan from the World Bank if they fail to secure the needed amount in aid.  They should find ways to tackle the deficit on multiple fronts, including by cutting unnecessary government expenses. The new administration is already larger than the one run by President Karzai. The new CEO, his two deputies and their support staff are likely to add pressure on the already overloaded government budget. 

One way to cut expenses would be to keep officials from Karzai’s administration in place and postpone the appointment of a new Cabinet and heads of independent organizations by a few months. This could temporarily avoid further expenses incurred during the transition to a new administration. 

Legal basis

The unity government brokered by the United States, United Nations and other international stakeholders is anything but ideal. However, the agreement reached by the leaders is commendable simply because it rescued the country from a new round of civil unrest that could undo all the achievements of the past 13 years. 

The sole base for its creation is an agreement signed by the two leaders, an accord whose legality and legitimacy remains contested. The new post of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) does not have any basis in the Afghan Constitution or election law. The constitution grants the president 20 specified powers, making him the most powerful person in the country. The agreement states that the president will delegate some of the executive authorities to the CEO, but remains vague on details. 

While the agreement indicates a 50-50 split on major government positions, extending this ratio to the president and CEO position would create two masters with equal footings. The absence of a clear, hierarchical division of power has already caused a fair share of confusion and ebbed the two political teams' respect for the new agreement. Prior to its signing, both teams had undertaken not to announce the final results in a bid to save Abdullah’s team the embarrassment. Abdullah’s camp called the announcement a violation of the accord and condemned the IEC’s decision. The revelation of final results on Ghani's Facebook page was so incendiary that it prompted Abdullah to reconsider his participation in the Sept. 29 inauguration, and was only resolved in the late hours when President Karzai personally stepped in. There were also reports on Sept. 28 that members of Abdullah’s team and those of Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ghani’s first vice president, scuffled over the office space designated for country’s second-highest government official.

More serious disputes could emerge in the coming days and weeks, unless both Ghani and Abdullah start cooperating with each other in ernest. In theory, no laws or agreements should supersede the Constitution. However, the two leaders should place public interest ahead of their own political alliances, adhering to any behind-the-scenes deals they undertook for the next two years and until the Loya Jirga constitutionally specifies the new powers of the president and the prime minister.