The Illusion of Afghanistan’s Electoral Representative Democracy

Posted on: 14-01-2018

By Professor Thomas H. Johnson

**This article is an excerpt of a paper published by Prof. Thomas Johnson with the same title (Small Wars & Insurgencies, vol. 29, 2018). The full article is available for download here. Note that references have been omitted here to help with the flow of the text but are available in the full article. **

In April 2014 in the midst of considerable controversy and the inability of President Karzai to run for President again due to term limits, Afghanistan held its third Presidential election with 11 candidates officially seeking election. The three leading candidates proved to be Dr Ashraf Ghani (Ahmadzai), Dr Abdullah Abdullah and Zalmai Rassoul. No candidate received the required majority of the vote during the April election (Abdullah received 45% of the vote while Ghani received 31.6%) and as required by the Afghan Constitution the second-round of the election was conducted on 14 June 2014. There were numerous reports of significant fraud with over 3000 official complaints of voting irregularities and violations during the April election.

On 14 June 2014 the second round of the presidential election was held. This election was ‘won’ by Ghani with 56.4% of the vote compared to Abdullah’s 43.6%. The vote was so controversial that the results were not announced until 21 September. During the months before and after this election there were considerable violence and allegations of significant voter fraud that some argued cost Abdullah from receiving the required 50% of the vote.6  A similar dynamic was witnessed during the 2009 Presidential election where 1.3 million fraudulent votes were discarded.

It has even been reported that the US Government conducted sophisticated analyses concerning the 2014 election’s results and concluded that Ghani, based on statistical and modeling studies, did not fare well in the election:

Ashraf Ghani did not win the election. The U.S. Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) concluded in July [2014] that it was mathematically impossible for Ghani to win, given Afghan demographics and the initial 46 percent to 32 percent first-round vote spread, according to sources familiar with the analysis. According to sources who reviewed the private report, the top experts in statistical analysis in the United States used every known computer model of election balloting and concluded that a Ghani victory was scientifically impossible. In simple terms, there is no mathematical doubt that Abdullah Abdullah won.

While I am presently conducting statistical analysis on the 2014 election and will delay any conclusions as to the legality of the election’s results, the mere recognition of the possible illegitimacy of this election along with the very real possibility of violence resulting from the disputed election outcome could lead one to suspect that this was a significant basis for the power-sharing structure brokered by then-US Secretary of State John Kerry for a ‘unity government’ including Dr Abdullah Abdullah as ‘Chief Executive Officer’ of the Ghani Administration. And this National Unity Government has been fraught with continuing problems since its creation:

Sweeping political reforms are crucial if Afghanistan is to move forward. Halfway through its legal term, Ashraf Ghani’s National Unity Government (NUG) has miserably failed against any benchmark set to gauge his performance – insecurity is widespread, the economy is stagnant, and the government has lost its support among the Afghan political class. In his government, exclusion, manipulation, and intimidation outperform principled politics and consensus building. Few people inside and even fewer outside the government believe that Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah are capable of taking Afghanistan out of the current stalemate. The country is politically polarized, militarily insecure, and rapidly derailing from its semi-democratic path, with constant crackdowns on civic demonstrations and voices of dissent.

Moreover, while beyond the scope of the research presented here, detailed analyses need to be conducted on the role of an external power like the US in brokering a deal such the one ‘uniting’ Ghani and Abdullah (the National Unity Government) and further indicates the important roles played by external power in many ethnically fragmented states. This dynamic needs a careful analysis and especially a focus on the role of external powers in post conflict stabilization. Fernando Pacheco et al. have assessed this question in Post-conflict Angola.

While the Afghan election process was originally greeted with great international fanfare and enthusiasm in 2004, it is now widely recognized, as suggested above, that recent Afghan elections raise significant and serious questions concerning the legitimacy and utility of the entire Afghan electoral system, as well as the ‘democratic process’. Indeed a number of years ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested that the ‘prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s … elections has undermined [then] President Hamid Karzai’s credibility’ and has politically isolated him. The ICG goes on to posit that the Afghan election process ‘could plunge the country deeper into not just political but armed conflict’.  Things have not changed with the election of Ashraf Ghani. Moreover, with long-delayed parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for 7 July 2018 and the presidential elections scheduled for 2019, it is important to raise fundamental questions concerning the Afghan election process.

The US, since the initial Bonn Accords, has vigorously pushed Afghanistan towards a democratic government, not just in name, but in practice, but the US administration would be well advised to look closer at the complexity involved in building a lasting democracy in ethnically divided and democratically inexperienced country. Afghanistan is a society fragmented by ethnic groupings where concerns over rights of distinct ethno-linguistic groups often seem to dominate over the rights of the individual or the state. Indeed a western-style liberal democracy, designed to promote and protect individual rights, is often viewed as doing little to address to the needs or desires of these groups. As Donald Horowitz points out, young democracies often fall victim to the problems of their past as they appropriate colonial institutions or western constitutional provisions, neither of which takes into account the reality facing the new nation. In Afghanistan’s case, it would appear that addressing the ethnic divisions that permeate the country is paramount if democracy is to take hold, assuming that is even possible.

Afghans, especially rural Afghans, have traditionally based their lives and preferences around local concerns. Rural Afghan identity is based at the village (kalay). Public faith is based on ‘traditional’ local organizations that deliver public goods. And it is important to recognize that over 73% of the Afghan population lives in rural areas. Ethnic differences are a particular, deeply complicating issue for Kabul. Afghans tend to perceive themselves, and more importantly, chose leaders based partly, but significantly, on ethno-linguistic considerations. This strongly implies Afghans tend to think about their interests as well as their future in fragmented, primarily ethnic terms that in large part often align poorly, or not at all, to the interests of the central government.

Over at least the past hundred years, Afghan national politics have not been of much concern to the ordinary rural Afghan who made decreasing the state’s influence at local levels a key priority. This constant deflection of central authority in the everyday lives of the Afghans allowed for traditional governing structures to remain and slowed their evolution to more modern structures. While the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 had important impacts on traditional, local governance, as the central government fought to gain access to these local structures of governance, it was met with increased resistance.

Legitimization is the most important measurement of social control, and the Afghan central government, quite frankly, does not have much of this. The idea of state legitimacy was deeply important to Afghans in 2002–2004, but less so to the Westerners who were largely steering the formation of the government, and therefore largely ignored while they pushed, instead, an agenda of jirgas followed by democratic elections.  The West compounded the legitimacy issue by failing to follow up development and reconstruction of the government with significant financing or international strategies (at least until 2008). The population waited, in vain, for effective rule of law and judicial institutions; responsive dispute resolution in matters of irrigation, land and water rights, and tribal and ethnic affairs; maintenance and development of infrastructure; the establishment of security in villages, cities, roads, and the borders, as well as a business environment that was conducive to the establishment of profitable trade; basic education; effective economic development at the local level, but the government, which had little extractive capability and little predictive income besides aid, chose to focus instead on the development of patron–client relations and paid attention in a reactionary, scatter-shot ways to the issues of the West, which lacked a unified or regional strategy and stumbled from issue to issue.

The population, for the most part, has seen little reason to treat the Kabul Government with any significant measure of legitimacy, since it essentially displays and exerts no legitimacy. Arguably, ‘[t]he most important institutions are those necessary for providing citizens with security and justice: the police force and the judicial system. Yet these two are recognized as the most corrupt and the least effective by the Afghan people’.  This has led to an environment which is conducive to considerable rural support for the Taliban, but also a popular perception among the population (especially the disenfranchised Pashtuns) that the Taliban, at least, are perceived as responsive, predictable, and honest. It seems likely that corruption drives as many people to join the insurgency as any other factor.

Professor Thomas H. Johnson is Research Professor and Director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA. He has conducted research and written about Afghanistan, South Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa for over 2 decades. He is currently a Senior Research Fellow of AISS.

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The article does not reflect the official opinion of the AISS.