By Richard Johnson
Afghanistan is hurtling toward a devastating political crisis as the government prepares to take full control of security when U.S. and NATO forces withdraw from the war-torn country in 2014, says a new report by the prestigious International Crisis Group.
“There is a real risk that the regime in Kabul could collapse upon NATO’s withdrawal in 2014,” says Candace Rondeaux, the Crisis Group’s senior Afghanistan analyst. “The window for remedial action is closing fast.”
Titled ‘Afghanistan: The Long, Hard Road to the 2014 Transition’, Brussels-based Crisis Group’s new report explains how deep-rooted factionalism and corruption are stalking the land, and institutional rivalries, conflicts over local authority and clashes over the role of Islam in governance have caused the country to lurch from one constitutional crisis to the next for nearly a decade.
As foreign aid and investment decline with the approach of the 2014 drawdown, so, too, will political cohesion in the capital, avers the report which describes how Afghanistan is on course for another set of fraudulent elections and how that could undermine what little hope remains for stability after it takes full responsibility for security.
“The Afghan army and police are overwhelmed and underprepared for the transition,” says Rondeaux. “Another botched election and resultant unrest would push them to breaking point.”
Lack of credibility
The report details the challenge ahead as the country’s political leaders prepare for political and security transition in eighteen months. The government’s credibility has not recovered since the fraudulent and chaotic presidential and parliamentary polls in 2009 and 2010, and so far, leaders have been unable to reverse the downward spiral.
“President Karzai and parliament have long known what needs to be done to ensure a clean vote, but they have steadfastly refused to take any serious steps in that direction,” says Rondeaux. “Karzai seems more interested in perpetuating his own power by any means rather than ensuring credibility of the political system and long-term stability in the country.”
To ensure political continuity and a stable security transition, says the report, action to correct flaws in the electoral framework and restore credibility to electoral and judicial institutions is needed well before the presidential and provincial council polls.
All the more so as tensions have already begun to mount between the president and the Wolesi Jirga (the lower house of the National Assembly), as debate over electoral and other key legal reforms heats up. Opposition demands for changes to the structures of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) and an overhaul of the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) election mechanism have become more vigorous by the day.
Timing of the 2014 elections
There is also, as yet, no sign of an agreement on the timing of the 2014 elections or the following year’s parliamentary elections, though President Karzai insisted on October 4, 2012 that the polls would be held on time and “without interruption”.
The IEC has hedged on publicly announcing the planned postponement of the provincial council polls, for fear that such an announcement could deepen the political crisis. The report says: “At a minimum, the IEC must announce a timetable and a plan for the 2014 elections that adhere closely to constitutional requirements by December 2012, and a new IEC chairman must be selected to replace the outgoing chairman, whose term expires in April 2013, as well as a new chief electoral officer.”
Massive fraud feared
The Crisis Group considers it “a near certainty” that under current conditions the 2014 elections will be plagued by massive fraud. “Vote rigging in the south and east, where security continues to deteriorate, is all but guaranteed. High levels of violence across the country before and on the day of the polls are likely to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands more would-be voters.”
In particular, the IEC will likely be forced to throw out many ballots. This would risk another showdown between the executive, legislature and judiciary. Under the current constitution and electoral laws, the government is not equipped to cope with legal challenges to polling results.
This is because nearly a decade after the first election, parliament and the president remain deeply divided over the responsibilities of constitutionally-mandated electoral institutions. The IEC, its credibility badly damaged after the fraudulent 2009 and 2010 elections, is struggling to redefine its role as it works to reform existing laws. There is also still considerable disagreement over whether the ECC should take the lead in arbitrating election-related complaints.
According to the report, it will be equally important to decide which state institution has final authority to adjudicate constitutional disputes before the elections. The uncertainty surrounding the responsibilities of the Supreme Court versus those of the constitutionally-mandated Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution (ICSIC) proved to be a critical factor in the September 2010 parliamentary polls.
The Supreme Court’s subsequent decision to establish a controversial special tribunal on elections raised serious questions about its own impartiality. Since then, institutional rivalries between the high court and ICSIC have increased considerably, with the Wolesi Jirga aggressively championing the latter’s primacy in opposition to the president, says the report.
The tug of war between these two constitutionally-mandated institutions has in fact extended to Supreme Court appointments; two of nine positions on the bench are held by judges whose terms have already expired, and the terms of three more expire in 2013. The ICSIC faces similar questions about its legitimacy, since only five of its required seven commissioners have been appointed by the president and approved by parliament.
Against this backdrop, says the Crisis Group: “Ambiguities over the roles of the Supreme Court and the constitutional commission must be resolved well before the presidential campaign begins in earnest in early 2013. An important first step would be to appoint the required judges and commissioners.”
The report adds: Institutional rivalry between the high court and the constitutional commission, however, can no more be resolved by presidential decree than it can by a simple parliamentary vote. Constitutional change will ultimately be necessary to restore the Supreme Court’s independence and to establish clear lines of authority between it and the ICSIC.
“Even if wholesale constitutional change is not possible in the near term, legal measures must be adopted within the next year to minimise the impact of institutional rivalry over electoral disputes and to ensure continuity between the end of Karzai’s term and the start of the next president’s term,” says the report.
Will Karzai exit gracefully?
“There are alarming signs Karzai hopes to stack the deck for a favoured proxy. Demonstrating at least will to ensure clean elections could forge a degree of national consensus and boost popular confidence, but steps toward a stable transition must begin now to prevent a precipitous slide toward state collapse,” finds the report.
President Karzai has signalled his intent to exit gracefully, but fears remain that he may, directly or indirectly, act to ensure his family’s continued majority ownership stake in the political status quo.
“This must be avoided,” the Crisis Group warns, adding: “It is critical to keep discord over election results to a minimum; any move to declare a state of emergency in the event of a prolonged electoral dispute would be catastrophic. The political system is too fragile to withstand an extension of Karzai’s mandate or an electoral outcome that appears to expand his family’s dynastic ambitions. Either would risk harming negotiations for a political settlement with the armed and unarmed opposition.”
The report considers it highly unlikely that a Karzai-brokered deal would survive under the current constitutional scheme, in which conflicts persist over judicial review, distribution of local political power and the role of Islamic law in shaping state authority and citizenship. “Karzai has considerable sway over the system, but his ability to leverage the process to his advantage beyond 2014 has limits. The elections must be viewed as an opportunity to break with the past and advance reconciliation,” says the report.