Afghanistan’s Institutional Credibility Crisis And Likelihood Of ‘Sheepish Elections’ – Analysis


Beyond the ongoing militant insurgency, international allies’ attention on Afghanistan proper – internal politics, society and economic development – has gradually diminished following the drawdown of most of the international forces and due to other rising global concerns – take immigration, Syria, Yemen and Donald Trump’s unpredictable behavior on the global state as examples.

Afghanistan’s National Unity Government (NUG) has in the meantime taken steps that largely defy its title. Social schisms along ethnicity and regional identity has become threatening when durability of representative democracy will be put to test in the country’s presidential elections in 2019 – the third one in the post-Bonn period and the first following withdrawal of the majority of coalition forces. The biggest challenge comes from convincing ordinary Afghans regarding viability of state institutions and dissuade other alternatives – including a Taliban style Islamic regime – among the urban and predominant rural population.

President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, in their fourth year of partnership, have so far ostensibly gone their separate ways in dealing with the country’s challenges. The political gridlock in the aftermath of April 2014 presidential elections that the partnership could’ve worked to lessen its chances of repetition, remains a likely scenario in the upcoming 2019 elections. The NUG deal stipulated convening a Grand Assembly (Loya Jirga) to amend the country’s constitution and divide the executive power between the president and a prime minister. The assembly has not been convened and the country’s constitution still does not recognize the Chief Executive who purportedly shares power with the president on equal terms, leaving it for a future contingency to decide whether the post will be needed or not.

Reforms in the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the body in-charge of elections, to increase its trustworthiness was one step to guarantee fair elections and reduce chances of disagreement when results are announced.

Previously in April 2014 elections, IEC’s impartial image was damaged when intercepted audio conversations of its head of secretariat at the time, Ziaulhaq Amarkhail’s was widely shared in social media, in which he allegedly instructed subordinates to fill the “sheep”, a code phrase for ballot stuffing during the runoff in favor of one candidate, Ashraf Ghani. Amarkhail resigned to calm rising tensions, temporarily exiting the country and returning after guarantees were given by former president Hamid Karzai against his prosecution. Invoking Amarkhail’s euphemism, the April 2014 presidential election has ever since been dubbed “sheepish election” by Ghani’s opponents.

This time Ashraf Ghani personally vetted candidates for recruiting as senior IEC members, including its president, Najibullah Ahmadzai, whom he later compelled to step down according to reports by Tolo News. Ahmadzai has been replaced by Gulajan Sayaad, a senior member of IEC.

Recently four senior IEC members showed disagreement regarding a decision by their new president who has called for copies of national identification (ID) papers – instead of the original – to be used for voter registration for the upcoming legislative elections. The acting head of IEC secretariat, Shahla Haq, resigned due to the decision. Previously those registering brought the original ID, which was stamped to later double-check at the time of voting. Critics believe use of copies, although helpful in boosting registration numbers – which has, worryingly, barely crossed 6 million from an estimated 14 million eligible voters according to IEC figures – will lead to multiple registrations and multiple voting. This can further reduce what remains of public trust on elections.

Reforms in the election bodies should ideally proceed in tandem with population census, not implemented yet in the post-Bonn period and is necessary to prevent rigged elections based on verifying voting numbers with provincial and district-level population size. Afghanistan’s last population census in 1979 is no longer reliable given the time lapse and frequent population displacements due to conflict and violence. This process met another roadblock because of the decision to print the word “Afghan” to designate all citizens in the new electronic identification cards (e-IDs), despite a previous decision to the contrary by the President which was ratified by the parliament. The decision has led to unexpected backlash from grassroots members of ethnic groups who see the word synonymous with one ethnic identity – Pashtun – and interpret the move as an assimilationist attempt to undermine other ethnic identities.

Identity politics remained in the margins during the many decades of political turmoil in the country, but it now vividly stirs up debates among a wider population. Opposition to the move on e-IDs has so far led to protests in Panjshir, Badakhshan and Parwan provinces, protestors carrying signs defiant of official symbols. Demands for political autonomy were raised by one MP from Badakhshan, Latif Pedram, should e-IDs be distributed in their current format.

These incessant debates may strike the observer as the birth pangs of a vibrant democracy in the making. However, the high-pitched disagreements on symbols that in the past were pillars of unity – national identity – and growing divergence among grassroots members of ethnic groups, makes such thinking dangerously deceptive. While representative democracy and ballot box ostensibly determines who rules, the social conscience and ethical requirements of such a system have had difficulty taking root within the context of post-2001 institutions.

Going back to late 2001, Zalmai Khalilzad returned to Afghanistan as George Bush’s Special Presidential Envoy and was later appointed as ambassador from 2003 to 2005. His mission involved bringing different Afghan stakeholders to negotiate a post-Taliban government in Bonn while Taliban militants were simultaneously being driven out of provinces in quick succession on the ground.

Khalilzad was later appointed US ambassador to Iraq in 2005. There, according to his account in his book “Envoy”, he takes caution not to displease different social groups when preparing for the constituent assembly, especially Sunnis who were worried of majoritarian rule by Shias in the post-Saddam Iraq, as well as the Kurds, who were unequivocal when it came to preserving an autonomous Kurdistan region. In his capacity, Khalilzad helped in negotiating a constitution that guaranteed group-based political participation through a parliamentary system, without giving any group a non-violable social and political privilege.

His time earlier in Kabul, according to the same book, shows little of such meticulous watchfulness. Khalilzad, who comes from a Pashtun family in Afghanistan and later moved to the US in his youth as a student, appears confident in his knowledge of Afghan society despite many years of living abroad, which results in a pre-conceived notion that he brings to bear on US policy and most importantly, in how state institutions were designed in post-2001 Afghanistan – the choice between a parliamentary or presidential system, for instance. Early on he divides Afghans political stakeholders into builders, disrupters and opportunists. More damaging than all, he advises Hamid Karzai, with whom he does not lose time establishing a cordial but also influential relationship, to persuade senior Northern Alliance figures into tactical retreats in his administration, convincing them to wrest important ministerial posts.

This later became the go-to approach by Karzai in dealing with the Northern Alliance, till the point when he ditched its leader, Marshal Qassim Fahim, from joining his ticket in the 2004 elections.

This is when Karzai’s security when entering Afghanistan as leader of the interim administration in late 2001 was guaranteed by the same Northern Alliance. Its forces had been fighting the Taliban in a 5-year long resistance before the 9/11 and at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, were responsible for bringing down their regime on the ground when US involvement was limited to B-52 fighter jets and a small contingent of special forces spread in the country. They, for better or worse, had also come to represent Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, protecting enclaves of villages and provinces from Taliban’s complete onslaught.

Khalilzad and Karzai’s strategy to push them out of power without the inclusion of other popular alternatives has resulted in the prevalent view that Pashtuns do not wish to cede traditional superiority in the country’s politics. From Khalilzad who returned to Afghanistan after 30 years as an American diplomat, to Hamid Karzai who was seen as a moderate and an ally, to the religious fanatics of the Taliban movement, and now in Ghani’s attitude toward Abdullah, an approach for re-installing the pre-war power hierarchy in which overt or tacit acquiescence to Pashtun domination was the norm can be seen, a harmonious arrangement which is believed to have been disrupted by many decades of conflict according to Khalilzad and needs restoring.

Khalilzad and other important figures of his generation, including Ashraf Ghani, largely engineered the Bonn Conference and what followed. His part in trying to rewind history to a previous state through political maneuvering while ignoring inexorable changes of the past four decades have contributed to unintended problems that are only now gradually emerging, eroding credibility of a system that should’ve guaranteed genuine representation and inclusion of those who abandoned arms to replace them with votes.

Ashraf Ghani, on his part, set forth to restore centralized bureaucracy and a national self-image perceived to have been harmed by the past four decades of instability, given to a hastiness coupled with short temper that has made it difficult to challenge his decisions.

Suspicions regarding ethnic bias in the government were strengthened when a memo from Ghani’s Administration Office of the President (AOP) was leaked last September, in which a list of “deliverables” was communicated to other members of AOP. In it Sawabudin Makhkash, a senior AOP official considered a close confidant of AOP leadership, issued guidelines on how to screen individuals based on their ethnic background or level of pliancy to “our team”. It lays down criteria for employing persianised Pashtuns from Herat and other compliant Hazaras and Uzbeks to maintain ethnic diversity on the surface.

Political decisions, even when hidden behind tall security walls seen everywhere in Kabul nowadays to fend off terrorism, create strong waves in a country where sentiments are less aroused by how fiscal policy is efficiently managed, public revenue improved, and governance brought under centralized scrutiny than threats to ethnic and group-based interests.

Urgent reforms are needed in the country’s political and institutional make-up. The country’s post-Bonn presidential system concentrates too much power in the presidential palace; in which the person on top easily becomes the target of both veneration and ethnically charged criticism, also leading to either imagined or actual abuse of power by the president.

Adding to this, the voting system for legislative elections have put Afghanistan on a trajectory that undermines participation in power by social groups and ordinary Afghans. Single None-Transferrable Vote (SNTV) was chosen early on by the Afghan government for legislative elections (Kuwaiti monarchy is the only other country with this system). According to Barnett Rubin, the system puts individuals in the limelight and votes are not transferrable in the case of co-partisanship, impeding creation of parties which might stimulate ethnic pluralism through cross-ethnicity membership.

Presently, after entering the parliament, MPs are answerable to no one but themselves, least to their constituencies on whom they invest considerable sums during the election campaign to secure their vote. Widespread abuse of parliamentary power has led to a recent UN report calling the Afghan parliament a catalyst for corruption in the country. The prospects of empowering more of the same MPs may be a reason behind lack of enthusiasm to register in big numbers to participate in the legislative elections.

Moreover, bringing a mix of technocratic outlook and popular appeal to the administration is more than urgent for the NUG before its term comes to an end. Most importantly, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah should cede power to institutions if they are serious about enhancing state efficiency. The impression one gets nowadays is that of two individuals running the country – one more than the other – who micro-manage every detail of governance. Even if successful, this is a path that perpetuates a personalistic polity and attachment of state legitimacy to individuals.

*Kambaiz Rafi is a PhD Candidate in University College London currently on fieldwork in Kabul. Kambaiz is also a visiting scholar at Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU).

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