Editorial: Further Derailing Democracy – The Politics of a Chaotic Afghan Election

Monday’s announcement of Ashraf Ghani’s preliminary success in the Afghan presidential polls marks another step backwards for democracy in Afghanistan. This is not because front-runner Ashraf Ghani would pose a necessarily worse option as president than his rival Abdullah Abdullah – but because the announcement of preliminary results before fraud has been accounted for symbolizes yet more pandering on the part of the Election Commission to an old system of corrupt, negotiated Afghan politics that alienates voters.

While both Abdullah and Ghani continue to level charges of fraud at each other, the real losers in this election process have been the voters, many of whom risked their lives in unstable areas to make sure that their votes were heard.  The voters we spoke with at the polls on Election Day were cautiously optimistic.  They overwhelmingly rejected Zelmai Rassoul, the candidate that Hamid Karzai appeared to be backing, a move that signaled their desire to move towards a new political era free of both the Taliban and many of Karzai’s cronies who have enriched themselves during the intervention.

Political change, however, has never come easily in Afghanistan.  For over a century clashes between old guard politics – where outcomes are negotiated over time by elites though political games, shifting alliances and delay tactics – and new ideas, such as communism or majority rule, have surfaced at various moments of crisis in Afghanistan, as they have done elsewhere. 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.

Thus far partial results releases and ambiguous recounting processes have dashed any hope of reform that was symbolized by high turnouts, 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. Why 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? Once again, as in 2009 and 2010, Afghanistan’s electoral institutions and the international actors that have supported them have facilitated a further derailing of democratic processes.

International diplomats have worked hard over the past months, shuttling back and forth between Ghani, Abdullah and Karzai, trying to keep all the key actors involved in the election process.  At this point, however, a firmer line needs to be drawn.  Ambassador James Cunningham and Senator Carl Levin have made initial calls for an audit of the vote.  This need to be followed with stronger statements by the United Nations and the rest of the international community, who paid for the elections, demanding a thorough and transparent review of the process.  Afghan voters have lost faith in the Independent Electoral Commission.  It now needs to be replaced or more visibly supported by international monitors who can verify the results of the review.

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 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, the international community needs to uphold the electoral process and not allow Afghan elites to continue their historic practices of bargaining and dividing up resources.  Otherwise, the democratic gains made in Afghanistan could be quickly lost.

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