An Imperfect Election and New Government Offer Only Glimmers of Hope for Afghanistan

The formation of a National Unity Government (NUG) in Afghanistan, ending the long 2014 presidential election process, has been hailed by international leaders as a peaceful and democratic transfer of power. Objective analysts, however, question the merits of such a view.

The ethnically divided second-round election in Afghanistan raised concerns about potential armed violence between ethnic groups, leading to a civil war. A unity government, based on a power-sharing agreement between the two rival candidates (Ghani and Abdullah), was believed to be the only option left to avoid a violent conflict.

If the President (Ghani) and the Chief Executive Officer (Abdullah) act carefully, the NUG could be a success, though addressing priority issues will take a long time.

Clearly, the launch of the NUG has enabled Afghanistan to avoid violent ethnic conflicts, at least temporarily. Yet the background to the six month-long election period leading to the transfer of power does not show that the context was peaceful. During a lengthy and rather opaque audit process, Taliban violence in the country escalated into crisis, harming Afghans’ physical and human security. From this perspective, the transfer of power was not entirely peaceful.

Analysts have also been seeking evidence to verify the claim that the transfer of power was democratic. That the second-round election was deeply fraudulent is accepted universally, including by the international community and both candidates. Electoral institutions performed poorly by neglecting to prevent fraud. These findings led honest Afghan voters, who had turned up in large numbers in face of Taliban threats, to question the very concept of democracy.

To address the requirement of a democratic election, an audit was launched under the leadership of the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission (IEC). International and national observers and representatives of both candidates were appointed for observation of the audit process. Such a complex and full audit of all ballots and ballot boxes across the country was unprecedented in any country’s election history.

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The audit process, however, proved to be hardly democratic. It was opaque and did not satisfy public accountability, one of the basic principles of a democracy. The audit should have defined its methodology, clarifying criteria used for separating valid from invalid votes; but instead it was launched and completed without ever defining these to Afghan voters and citizens of international donor countries that financed the Afghanistan election.  Constant arguments between representative observers of both candidates during the vote audit process showed the absence of clear rules. International observers (including the Canadian government –led team) have publicly delivered no significant comments on the subject, and the allegation of large-scale fraud in the second round remains unaddressed.

Although relieved to see the end of the election process with the launch of the NUG, the Afghan public continues to question the value of democracy and voting. Until public accountability is satisfied through a clarification of the audit procedure, the credibility of the election and its results will remain questionable. This means that the legitimacy of the NUG, based on the results of an election process considered not credible or democratic, can also be questioned in the future.

The international community’s original intents and commitments in 2001 included helping the Afghan government to establish its legitimacy across the country. In 13 years, with billions of dollars of foreign assistance in security and development, and after three internationally financed elections, the government’s legitimacy has not been satisfactorily addressed.

For all of these reasons, although the launch of the NUG is good news in the short term, concerns remain about the longer-term stability of the alliance between Ghani and Abdullah and their respective supporters. A breaking point was almost reached when, due to a departure from the agreement reached with Ghani, Abdullah threatened not to attend the inauguration ceremony of the new government. The differences were patched up—but repeated patch-ups will not contribute to political stability in the country.

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The hope is that NUG will be effective in delivering security enhancement, economic growth, social development, good governance and, most importantly, a reduction of dependence on aid. A long list of issues must be addressed under these areas. The highest priority issues are strengthening security forces to improve Afghans’ physical security; negotiation with Pakistan free from foreign interference; revenue and public finance management reforms; justice and legal reforms; anti-corruption and anti-narcotics measures; measures for protecting human rights, especially women’s rights; and delivering basic needs services to Afghans.

Both candidates’ camps included individuals who had violated some of the principles underlying these issues. A stark compromise on such principles might be evident in the appointments made by the NUG at the Presidential advisor and ministerial levels.

If the President (Ghani) and the Chief Executive Officer (Abdullah) act carefully, the NUG could be a success, though addressing priority issues will take a long time. Aid dependency is unlikely to be reduced in the short term (approximately three years), but milestones must be established to reach some of the targets of aid dependency reduction in the medium term (five to six years). Donor fatigue, as reflected in fast- declining aid commitments to Afghanistan, underlines the need to pay attention to reducing aid dependency.

The good news is that some of the very recent policy announcements and actions of the NUG show a determination to address high priority issues (e.g. signing the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, reopening corruption cases related to the Kabul Bank failure, and efforts to ensure press freedom). Even though international attention has recently been diverted to the crisis in Iraq, Afghans and the international community will watch these and other developments in the country with interest.

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