KABUL, Afghanistan – The ballot counting in Afghanistan's five-month-long presidential election is finished, but as negotiations continue over the country's future political power structure, many here are asking: Does my vote count?
On Monday, the country's Electoral Complaints Commission began ruling on grievances from the candidates following word a day earlier that the election committee had finished reviewing all ballots cast in the second round. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the step, and said that the Afghan people's wish to achieve "a peaceful, democratic leadership transition must be respected."
After a presidential election that has taken nearly half a year, capped by delays over fraud investigations and behind-the-scenes power sharing talks aimed at averting political acrimony that could descend into violence, many here don't like the feel of democracy.
"Where is the democracy? There's no democracy. We are disappointed by this process. I can tell you one thing, I'm not going to vote in parliamentary elections next year," said Mohammed Nadir, a 44-year-old shopkeeper.
"In India 1 billion people voted and in 24 hours later it was finished. This is a disaster," said Abdul Raouf, a 50-year-old from Nangarhar province. "The word democracy has no meaning in Afghanistan."
The two men now jockeying for presidential powers in secretive negotiations are former Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have been in frequent contact as they press the two to find a power-sharing deal acceptable to both sides that avoids future conflict.
The two presidential contenders were to meet with President Hamid Karzai Monday evening in another attempt to reach a deal, said Halim Fidai, a former Afghan governor and member of the Ghani Ahmadzai team. The major sticking point, he said, remains over the powers given to the new position of chief executive. Ghani Ahmadzai will not agree to allow the CEO to control the presidential cabinet because it violates the constitution, he said.
During the weekend, negotiations between the candidates narrowed to one major issue: Would the president have to reach "agreement" with the chief executive on key decisions, or simply seek his "consultation" before deciding important issues, according to a former Afghan official. The former official, who is familiar with the negotiations, spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to publicly disclose details of the talks.
Abdullah was advocating for the word "agreement," while Ghani Ahmadzai was pushing for the word "consultation." The U.S. proposed that the chief executive "coordinate" cabinet activities and both candidates appear to be more comfortable with that term, the former official said.
Yet to be decided, however, is the issue of announcing the results of the recount. The former official said Ghani Ahmadzai had agreed to a power-sharing arrangement, but that the ballot results must be announced to declare him the top vote-getter. Abdullah, who believes the second round was plagued by massive fraud, is suggesting that no vote results be announced, or that if they are, that the two candidates' votes be even so as not to undercut the second-place winner's authority in the government going forward, the former official said.
Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai emerged as the two top vote getters in April's election, winning 45 percent and 31.5 percent of the vote respectively and setting them up for a runoff.
Ghani Ahmadzai was then announced as the winner of the second-round vote with 56.4 percent before the election commission's weeks-long audit of the nearly 8 million ballots cast. The audit is expected to lower his vote total by only a small margin. But the former World Bank official said that "a winner-take-all formula does not work in Afghanistan" as he pledged to include his opponent in a new national unity government.
"We don't want a divided country politically. Elections divide people," Ghani Ahmadzai said last week.
Hamidullah Farooqi, a former member of Ghani Ahmadzai's team, said that even though Afghan law calls for one clear winner of the election, he does not believe the country is ready for a winner-take-all election.
"If you explain this to the average Afghan I think he will agree," Farooqi said. "Some sort of national unity government is very necessary to have all those political powers within the power circle to avoid future conflict."
Still, Farooqi said, because of the drawn-out-nature of the presidential vote, he fears the country has lost some faith in the election process.
Sareer Ahmad Barmak, one of eight commissioners of Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission, said in an interview Sunday that he wasn't yet sure when the final vote count would be released. "Probably Saturday," he said, before conceding that the commission hadn't yet decided.
"We have an expensive, time-consuming election. This is Afghanistan. And a political compromise is the reason we've done these audits," he said. The Afghan people, he conceded, are ready to hear the results. "They are frustrated. They are not putting us under pressure. They are frustrated with the two candidates."
Ahmad Yousuf Nouristani, chairman of the election commission, said he will not wait for a political deal to announce the vote results. But he did not say when the final vote tally would be released. Fidai said he expects an inauguration to take place sometime next week.
Monday is the International Day of Democracy, a U.N. day of observation to celebrate "the freely expressed will of people to determine" their own political system. Despite months of election efforts and the untold millions of dollars spent, many average Afghans don't believe that is what took place.
"The election was a fraud. One hundred percent I regret it. We voted but our voices didn't matter," said Abdul Wahid Mohammadi, a 45-year-old shop owner in one of Kabul's upscale neighborhoods. "In Afghanistan there is no democracy, there's only the big stick of power."
Associated Press writers Amir Shah in Kabul and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.