We have a winner…

and a run-off.

Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission recently released the preliminary results of the 2014 Presidential Election, showing that Abdullah Abdullah (former foreign minister who lost the Presidency in 2009 to Hamid Karzai) holds the lead with 44.9 percent of the votes and Ashraf Ghani (former finance minister) is in second place with 31.5 percent

Election final results_708 by 462 FINAL_00045

Compared to the 2009 elections, 50% more people voted (for a total of 7,018,049) and only 375,000 votes were found to be fraudulent (compared to 1.2 million five years ago). The run-off, a first in Afghanistan’s history, between Abdullah and Ghani is set to take place June 14th.

Substantively, the candidates are very similar. Both have promised to sign the bilateral security agreement with the United States (allowing U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan) and both have pledged a commitment to post-2014 peace, but have remained equally ambiguous as to their plans for a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. Each candidate has also accused his opponent of electoral fraud and both are convinced they will win. Yet, though their positions on issues and campaign strategies may be similar, their personal and political histories are radically different.

 The first, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, is a one-time aide to a famed warlord during the Afghan anti-Soviet guerrilla campaign. The second, ex-Finance Minister Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, is a Columbia University-educated anthropologist who spent much of the ‘90s working for the World Bank.

 Abdullah, 53, has both Pashtun and Tajik parentage. During the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, he served as adviser to and spokesman for Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was assassinated by al-Qaida two days before the Sept. 11, 2001 attack.

In the early days after the U.S.-led alliance toppled the Taliban regime, Abdullah became the face of Afghanistan’s anti-Taliban movement, giving frequent press conferences to international media. He served as foreign minister and then was the runner-up in Karzai’s disputed re-election in 2009.

Ahmadzai, a 64-year-old Pashtun, received a Ph.D. in anthropology from Columbia University and taught at Johns Hopkins University during the years of Soviet occupation. He then began a career at the World Bank and was finance minister in the first post-Taliban government. He also ran in the 2009 election, coached by American campaign consultant James Carville, but received only 3 percent of the vote.

Both candidates have named running mates chosen strategically from other ethnic groups, a Pashtun for Abdullah and an Uzbek for Ahmadzai.

Approaching the second round of elections, many are hopeful that voters will participate with equal—if not greater—enthusiasm as the first go-round in April, but are concerned that the run-off runs a higher risk of fomenting ethnic cleavages, particularly amongst Pashtuns (Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group that has only lost power twice in the past 250 years and considers themselves underrepresented in the capital). Both candidates have ties to the Pashtuns, but Mr. Abdullah is historically and publically identified by his half-Tajik heritage. Zalmai Rassoul (the third place candidate) recently announced he will be supporting Mr. Abdullah for the run-off, but it is unclear whether Rassoul’s personal support will translate to his demographic, which is primarily Pashtun.

More important than the winning candidate, however, is the margin of error by which he wins. Afghans are ready for an end to this interminable violence and are likely to accept either leader as long as the process by which he was elected is deemed legitimate, which some quantify as having a vote share gap between winner and loser that is  larger than 3%. The larger the margin, the lesser the likelihood that the losing candidate will contest the results on account of foul play. The uglier the contestation post-election is, the lesser the likelihood that the losing candidate will take part in the next Afghan government, which would certainly be a loss for a country that needs every politician committed to change it can find, particularly when they have different strengths.

U.S. officials have said they would welcome working with either candidate—adding that the political “bench” of talented, highly educated Afghans is so narrow that the country needs both. They need the diplomatic and financial skills of Ghani the Pashtun former World Bank official and professor who spent much of his life overseas, whose delicate form, gentle mannerisms and careful academic speech leads some to call him “the Afghan Mahatma Gandhi.” And they need the political and military connections of Abdullah, a former member of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance who stayed in the country throughout the conflicts with the Soviets and the Taliban, with his deep ties to the Afghan community forged through that wartime experience.

U.S. officials said NATO’s own analysis of the first round of voting points to an even larger Abdullah win in the second round, which could damage Ghani—effectively ending the political career of a man seen as uniquely able to navigate the world of the international aid and economic development needed to keep Afghanistan afloat.

The run-off will also take place at the height of the Taliban spring offensive, but Afghan National Security Forces are already gearing up to deal with an increase in extremist threats.


Meanwhile in India….

That clip is hilarious, but out-dated because Narendra Modi ended up stealing the show. After a 6-week election in which over 550 million people participated, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the Indian elections in an unprecedented landslide. Alone it won 282 parliamentary seats (out of 543), which puts it solidly in the range of single party majority rule (a feat unseen since 1984 and the first time a non-Congress party has done so). Along with its allies in the National Democratic Alliance, it now controls 335 seats in the lower house of parliament.

Not only did the BJP make remarkable gains on a pan-Indian level, it performed extraordinarily well in several states where it did not previously have a strong standing, even overtaking several state governments long-ruled by regional parties. The incumbent alliance led by the Indian National Congress Party (that has ruled for almost 5 decades since India’s independence in 1947), however, saw its most recent rule come to a devastating end. It won 44 of 543 seats, arguably the biggest defeat in Indian political history.

The new prime minister of India, Narendra Modi, certainly led to the BJP to victory on a platform of good governance and economic development that was targeted to India’s youth. In addition to toilets, Modi has made many (perhaps a little too outlandish) promises to voters including the ideas of “building ‘a hundred new cities,’ of extending a high-speed rail network across the subcontinent and undertaking the herculean task of cleaning the Ganges River”.

As a result of both the lofty promises Modi has espoused and the hefty demands of Indian voters, the expectations are high and the fight is far from over for Modi.

Modi’s success will depend on how effectively he empowers the private sector and how he implements the next belated phase of market-centered reforms. With nearly half of India’s 1.2 billion people under 26, few Indians can even recall the 1991 reforms. India’s youth bulge can be an enormous asset or liability, depending on whether the government finds a fix for the woeful general education system and its linkage to job creation.

The new generation remains very focused on precisely that issue — jobs and the lack thereof. In the coming generation, nearly two-thirds of India’s citizens will dwell in urban areas, with an estimated 300 million added over the next 25 years. One can only imagine the gargantuan infrastructure needs (and also the investment opportunities) that lie ahead.

Tackling inflation, job creation, growth, and corruption are formidable tasks and there are still many constraints in Modi’s way (along with concerns from India’s minorities that his historically Hindu-nationalist party might not represent their interests), but whatever happens in both India and Afghanistan, something is stirring. Voter turnout was higher in both countries (especially among youth and women) and everywhere the loudest cries have been for change, transparency, and peace.

Want some more election coverage? The Daily Show is doing a series on the Indian elections that began on Thursday. Not as good as John Oliver’s, but pretty entertaining.


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