Yesterday’s announcement of Ghani’s preliminary success marks yet another step backwards in Afghanistan’s democratisation. Not because Ashraf would pose a necessarily worse option as President than Abdullah (although it is probably true that neither are up to the Herculean task) – but because the announcement of preliminary results before fraud has been accounted for symbolises yet more pandering to an old system of negotiated Afghan politics.
For over a century clashes between old guard politics – where outcomes are negotiated over time by elites though games, shifting alliances and delay tactics – and new ideas, such as communism or majority rule, have surfaced at various moments of crisis, as they do in any context. And yet in Afghanistan the persistence of the old system appears to be entrenched to a greater degree than elsewhere, often running in parallel to new schemes set up by outsiders insisting on reform. While negotiated, consensus-based politics may not be in itself a bad thing, the contradictions and spaces for elite manipulation that are opened up by the combination of old and new rules of the game allow a privileged few to consolidate political and economic resources at the expense of everyone else. The game that this election has become is no exception: a window of promise in the first round quickly closed as delays, partial results releases and ambiguous recounting processes, playing into the hands of candidates who would benefit significantly from the deals they would make with each other before a run-off was announced.
What is particularly galling in 2014, however, is that in spite of the dangers of voting and the track record of the Afghan government’s interference in elections, people turned out in the first round to vote regardless. If nothing else, this was a symbol of people’s frustration with the old system and a call for change. And yet, once again, Afghanistan’s electoral institutions and the international actors that have supported them have facilitated a further derailing of democratic processes. Why, for example, does it take over a month to count ballots in Afghanistan? Why are results announced partially over the course of that month? What makes this context so special that elections have to happen differently here to any other country in which elections take place? The old line of adverse weather and security conditions really doesn’t wash anymore. If anything at all was needed in this important year, it was a quick, transparent election with a decisive result. It is difficult to believe that it was beyond the capabilities of international actors to insist on this (particularly as they paid for the polls). Rather more likely is that they were simply unwilling to get involved.
Anyhow, more important than assigning blame in hindsight is the consideration of the consequences of yet another step backwards for democracy in Afghanistan. In the short-term, electoral deadlock will continue as long as Abdullah refuses to accept the results. In the best case scenario, some sort of power-sharing deal will be brokered, either by key internal actors like Qanooni or with the assistance of internationals. In the worst case, civil unrest will escalate over what will be seen by many as a fraudulent election and an illegitimate new government. Either way, a precedent for new heights of negotiated elite bargains has been set as the Afghan synonym for electoral democracy.