Parallel Inaugurations

Ashraf Ghani’s oath taking ceremony was a controversial affair, writes Farhatullah Babar

Parallel Inaugurations
On Monday, Afghanistan’s internal political woes took a new turn, raising fears not only for the country’s fragile democracy but also of its unity when both President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah had themselves sworn in as presidents simultaneously in the same compound in Kabul separated only by a thin wall.

These fears were heightened when, in the midst of Ghani’s inaugural address, multiple rockets were fired. That these rockets were targeting him was not in in any doubt when the militant Islamic State (IS) soon claimed responsibility thus: “Caliphate soldiers targeted the inauguration of the tyrant Ashraf Ghani.”

Earlier in the day, the ceremony scheduled at 10 am was delayed till later in the afternoon as efforts for a patch up between the two continued behind the scenes to avoid the spectacle of parallel inaugurations. Reports were doing rounds that the US had urged both Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah to delay their ceremonies to work out some political settlement.
Ghani’s oath taking was endorsed by the international community through the presence of diplomatic representatives of nearly three dozen countries

Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad held three meetings with Abdullah for the purpose but to no end. “We presented our plan to Khalilzad to relay it to Ghani’s office whose plan has also been transmitted to us. Although no tangible results have been achieved thus far, hopes remain high,” a spokesman for Abdullah said in the day. What was Abdullah’s plan relayed to Ghani was not made public but it was generally surmised that he wanted the existing system of duality of control - the National Unity government - to continue.

The prospect of two contenders for power swearing in as presidents of the same country at the same time and in the same compound was bizarre but it was very much real. “In the past four decades of war and conflict the Afghans went through many upheavals but were never so divided. Despite a multi-ethnic and multi-religious country, the Afghan people providentially preserved unity all times, even in the worst situations…united we stand, divided we fall,” the leading daily Afghanistan Times summed up the dilemma in its editorial Where are we heading as a Nation?

Meanwhile, the invitees to the ceremony waited with bated breath for permission to proceed to the Presidential palace. The Pakistani delegation, staying in a local hotel, had been informed in the morning that the ceremony had been delayed and that they may wait in their rooms for a green signal later in the afternoon for an escort to the Presidential palace. In the midst of this uncertainty, Dr Abdullah tweeted, “No one should have underestimated our commitment to genuine democracy and our resolve to uphold rule of law. Our track record of self-denial and compromise should not have given cause to anyone to take us for granted. Invalidation of all fraudulent votes is the way out.” This assertion by Abdullah Abdullah midday refusing to be ‘taken for granted’ and demanding ‘invalidation of fraudulent votes’ was a clear indication that the mediation efforts had failed and Abdullah Abdullah was set to stage the unprecedented parallel oath taking.

It may be recalled that last month, the Election Commission of Afghanistan declared Ashraf Ghani as the winner of September 2019 elections but Dr Abdullah not only refused to accept the result, he also announced to appoint his own governors in the provinces where he had won. The rivalry between them, however, is not new. In 2014, Abdullah challenged Ashraf Ghani’s elections and claimed victory. However, then a government of national unity was formed, following US mediation resulting in Ghani as the President and Abdullah as the Chief Executive.

Dr Abdullah’s objections to the 2019 elections and the fact that Ghani won these elections by a razor thin majority may have some merits but such objections and the reality of razor thin majorities are common in fledgling democracies. Pakistanis have known it only too well where the debate of selected versus the elected still rages.

The Afghan election commission duly notified Ghani as the elected President. Ghani’s oath taking was endorsed by the international community through the presence of diplomatic representatives of nearly three dozen countries in Kabul including Special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and General Miller. Ghani was administered oath of office by the country’s chief justice in the presence of other senior judges, the bureaucracy and the elite. Zalmay Khalilzad, sitting the front row with General Miller on his left, may have appeared tense perhaps due to the failure of his efforts for a patch. But the US, which recently signed a peace deal with Taliban, also endorses Ghani at least for the time being.

The symbolism at the oath taking in Kabul did not go unnoticed. Ghani left his residential quarters for the oath taking under the shadow of Holy Quran. He addressed the guests in part Pashto, part Persian. He chose to don the traditional turban but was not unmindful of the Uzbek culture as his attire unmistakably demonstrated. Even in the face of the rocket attack, he appeared unnerved and challenged the militants as enemies of the people, as the two vice presidents jumped on to the stage with electrifying speed to holds hands in solidarity and defiance. As he entered the enclosure, he walked up from end to end, raising both hands giving an impression to every guest that he was being greeted individually. He made a point by pausing a bit longer as he walked up and greeted the Pakistani delegation, comprising mostly of nationalist parties and politicians and seated in the front row. The symbolism appeared natural, rather than calculated and contrived.

Leading members of the Pakistani delegation included MNAs Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar, QWP’s chief Aftab Sherpao, Mahmood Khan Achakzai of PkMAP, Ghulam Ahmad Bilor of ANP, noted nationalists cum political activists cum ex members of Parliament like Afrasiab Khattak, Bushra Gohar, Jamila Gillani and Dr Said Alam Mehsud, besides PPP Khyber Pakshtunkhwa chapter’s Faisal Kundi and several others. MNAs Ali Wazir and Mohsin Dawar seemed to be at the centre as every gaze appeared to deflect towards them, bringing into question as to what purpose was served when they were initially barred from travelling to Kabul by overzealous elements in security establishment.

The writer was member of the delegation invited to the oath taking ceremony.