Global Policy Forum

Stakes High in Afghan Elections

Institute for War and Peace Reporting
September 21, 2004

Stakes are high in the forthcoming elections in Afghanistan, seen as the biggest test yet of progress achieved in the three years since the removal of Taleban rule. If Afghans perceive the ballots –presidential on October 9 and a parliamentary election six months later – as at least semi-democratic, they could create more legitimate foundations on which state-building and reconstruction can move forward. If they are seen to fail, old cycles of disintegration and conflict could be revived.

Many of the indicators are negative. Most observers agree that key hopes raised by the Bonn agreement signed in December 2001 have not been met: security, development of political space and institution-building have fallen short of expectations. Sceptics have even cast doubt on the big success story of the pre-election phase – the registration of more than 10 million Afghans, virtually the entire estimated electorate – claiming a high degree of fraud.

"Conditions are not conducive for elections – history has shown us the danger of premature elections," said Mark Sedra, an analyst who has written a number of papers for the German think-tank, the Bonn International Centre for Conversion. "The political system hasn't had time to mature enough at this juncture."

The list of things that could go wrong is long: the Taleban continuing their effort to derail the political process and discredit its international sponsors, but there are many others, not least the capture of parliament and government by powerful players able to press narrow group interests with the threat of military action. As John Sifton, Afghanistan researcher for the United States-based Human Rights Watch puts it; "The future government may be dominated by regional factional military leaders which would make the risk of civil conflict very real, with the possibility of human rights abuses."

In addition, future elected leaders will face a pressing need to deliver services to the Afghan population to alleviate poverty and build or reconstruct infrastructure needed to boost economic growth. That is also needed to drain manpower from the militias and from the opium-growing industry that supports them.

But if there is a high risk that the elections will do more harm than good, is it right to be holding them now? Analysts interviewed by IWPR argue that the elections are the end product of a political process that has been flawed right since its inception in Bonn in 2001. But many say pressing ahead with them may be the best possible compromise in difficult circumstances. Postponement for more than a few months, as has already happened, is not really an option.


On October 9, more than 10 million Afghans will be able to go to one of 25,000 polling stations across the country to pick one of 18 candidates to be their elected leader. In April they will get another opportunity: to elect constituency members to the 249-seat lower chamber of an all-new parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. (The upper house, the Meshrano Jirga will be elected indirectly by provincial and district councils, with a third of the seats distributed by the Afghan president.)

That the country has got this far is due in large part to the support of the United Nations, whose Assistance Mission for Afghanistan or UNAMA has deployed thousands of people to register voters across the country and drum up interest in the democratic process. In early summer there were widespread reports that registration was a disaster, but it quickly gathered pace, and the numbers exceeded all expectations despite funding delays and the targeted murder and intimidation of election officials by Taleban guerrillas.

These technical preparations are too little, too late, say critics of the programme. Analysts interviewed by IWPR spoke of a trade in voter-registration cards and other forms of fraud, which raised serious questions about the validity of the figure of 10.5 million people registered. One spoke about the possibility of fraud on election day given the thinness with which election officers, security and other resources will be spread.


These elections represent the final item on the list of changes set out in the agenda for post-Taleban constitutional development, which Afghan leaders signed up to in December 2001. If the presidential vote is expected to formalise the incumbent Hamed Karzai's position, the general election will in theory put in place representative elected institutions to oversee a more stable phase of reconstruction.

Both lower house and presidential elections were supposed to have taken place in June but were rescheduled for September as technical preparations were lagging badly behind schedule. It was later decided to push the presidential ballot back by a month and delay the general election by half a year because of the need to mark out constituency boundaries. Another somewhat more optimistic ambition is that the security environment will be better by then, giving more space in which political thought, expressed through parties and other mediums, can develop.


At a point when it seemed both elections would be in September, Barnett Rubin, a US scholar who has been closely involved in Afghan constitutional development, urged that this should not be allowed to happen. "It is becoming increasingly obvious… that elections in September would not be free or fair," he wrote in the International Herald Tribune on June 15. "The experience of post conflict operations shows that elections without security and sufficient political consensus on the rules of the game lead to governments that are less legitimate and effective, not more."

As the elections become an inevitable reality, many close observers as well as those involved in the process make a strong case for holding them now rather than at some later date. They also cite the importance of keeping the process dynamic rather than allowing stagnation and possible backsliding, and of demonstrating to the Afghan people – and even to the Taleban — that the international community is determined to see its support for Afghanistan through to the end.

Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office, FCO, which is sponsoring elements of the election process, is upbeat about the prospects. "We very much welcomed the announcement of the elections in October….It was a great milestone," FCO press officer Martin Longden told IWPR. "Over 10 million people have registered, 40 per cent of them are women…. It's a vibrant democratic contest."

Zahir Tanin, a leading commentator on Afghanistan with the BBC World Service, says it's a question of bolstering the legitimacy of Afghan self-rule as quickly as possible, "There was a dilemma for the international community and the Afghan leadership with respect to the timing of the elections…. The leadership did not want to be seen holding power without legitimacy. Elections are the only way to deal with this: the danger of holding power without legitimacy has been proven throughout Afghanistan's history." Tanin believes the elections were staggered because "the energy, resources, and money are not significant enough" to allow them to be held simultaneously. He shares the view that if the elections had been postponed for a longer period, it is unclear just when the moment would come when the environment would be deemed right to hold them, "It would be too difficult to wait for a position where all conditions for a free and fair election would be met."

Jonathan Goodhand, who lectures in development practice at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London and has written extensively on Afghanistan, understands the arguments made in favour of keeping up the momentum, "That has been the big pressure: to get the elections done—any elections—so the compromise was to get the presidential elections done. Clearly, Bonn was always going to be an imperfect agreement and there is going to be a tension between the need to keep a certain momentum going and the need to not push things too quickly. You could argue that if you don't keep pressing ahead then warlords and spoilers will fill the vacuum anyway. You can't actually let things solidify too much; you've actually got to push things forward." Yet Goodhand has considerable reservations about the way the political process has been handled, saying, "I think the balance is wrong: it's too much haste, not enough thought and resources, and no security."

One downside of creating a gap between the presidential and general election is that some Afghans will question the legitimacy of continued rule by decree, rather than an elected body. Arguments in its favour are that the first ballot will offer a "quick win" for democracy and its international backers; and that it will create extra time for addressing some of the graver outstanding problems as well as the logistics of mapping out constituencies.


The presidential poll is widely expected to result in a win for President Karzai, in whom the international community has invested most of its hopes. The expected low turnout in southern regions will deprive him of some of the Pashtun vote, and several of his 17 rivals will win the votes of a substantial chunk of their ethnic constituency, or perhaps more accurately the electorate in the area where they are politically and militarily dominant. The former interior and education minister Mohammad Younis Qanuni looks like the strongest of these contenders, with some formidable backing from other Panjsheri figures, notably Defence Minister Mohammad Fahim Khan.

As election day draws closer, there are signs some of the candidates are negotiating deals to win concessions in return for backing the front-runner. But if Karzai makes too many concessions to the various players in order to win, he could be compromising hopes of political reform. "People agree that despite there being some challengers, Karzai will win—but he will exchange future favours to prevent the current challenge," said Sifton. "In this context, challengers are creating political capital and using the presidential election as an opportunity to solidify power. The worry is not that Karzai will lose, but that he will win a hollow victory and appoint the same cabinet, which will be full of warlords."


If the main players in the presidential ballot are visible and its outcome pretty clear, those of the parliamentary election are anything but. It is unclear who will stand, and the political or factional interests they will represent. It is not known how the numerous small non-military parties will perform, and it has to be suspected that the militarised factions will get round the ban by re-branding themselves or using proxy "independent" candidates. In the south, especially, it is unclear how people will vote in the different provinces. "These second elections are the ones that are going to be the most incendiary in many ways, and that they are the most likely to polarise the country – it may go into ethnic constituencies," said Goodhand. "That reason, and the logistics, is… why they are being delayed, but a delay to April is not very long."

Intimidation of voters and manipulation of the election results are inevitable. The crucial question is whether this will be so widespread as to render the vote meaningless. "If the security situation doesn't improve by spring, [intimidation and manipulation] will be the same or worse than it is now," warned Sedra.


Apart from the practical issues to do with trying to ensure the election is fair on the day, the outstanding problems boil down to security and the ability of voters to make as free and informed choices as is possible. Back in May, Jean Arnault, the UN Secretary General's special representative for Afghanistan, said that the "main danger to the peace process is the return of civil war caused by factional armies".

Afghanistan is still at war, at least as far as certain southern provinces are concerned where the Coalition forces play cat-and-mouse with Taleban and al-Qaeda. That makes it hard to create a new election process – generally a feature of post-conflict situations. Outside the war zone there are stable areas, and not so stable regions where military commanders are able to combine signing up to the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration, DDR, scheme while sporadically taking on their neighbours in pitched battles. Add to this freelance banditry and an opium-driven economy in some places, and the security picture three years after Bonn is discouraging.

The failure to create a secure environment has been the most persistent concern for Afghans as well as internationals. In a countrywide survey conducted by the Asia Foundation earlier this year, security was the biggest area of concern for respondents (37 per cent of them said so, with the economy ranked second). In late May, the UN's Arnault gave a stark warning about the lack of progress, saying that DDR, the disarmament, demobilisation and demilitarisation programme, had "suffered serious delays. Senior [Afghan] commanders have been reluctant to cooperate with the process on a variety of grounds."

In May, the Foreign Relations Committee of the United States Senate heard from Mark Schneider, senior vice president of the International Crisis Group, that "until the bulk of the militias are decommissioned, there is a grave risk that the coming elections will be determined by those who control the guns." Since then, there has been further progress on DDR, so that in August it was reported that 13,000 soldiers had been disarmed; the numbers looked even better as the total size of irregular forces was revised downwards from 100,000 to 40,000 or less. Even so, Sedra thinks "DDR is the key but it will take a decade at the present pace".

Analysts to whom IWPR spoke were fairly damning of progress to date on ensuring security. "The government of Karzai and the international community including the US and NATO allies have systematically fallen short in terms of putting pressure on factional forces to meet the provisions set-out in the Bonn agreement. One important failure is the failure to push for disarmament," said Human Rights Watch's Sifton. "There were provisions in the Bonn agreement that the militia forces would withdraw, disarm and unify. This has not been practically implemented. Instead, DDR has been symbolic; militia forces remain highly factional."

According to Goodhand, the tactical alliances the United States-led Coalition made in its "war on terror" meant that warlords ended up strengthened rather than weakened. "There was this opportunity after the Taleban fell to actually try to minimise the power of certain political and military actors," he said, adding, "all the incentives were wrong", citing US funding for warlords who became their allies. That was the key window of opportunity, in the year after the fall of the Taleban."


In a society with low literacy levels and suffering from decades of war and poverty, it is sometimes asked how relevant elections will be to people's lives, even if there were a substantial voter education programme and a free and fair election. The assumption behind the forthcoming elections is that they will be relevant. However, the range of choices facing voters may be depressingly familiar.

From the outset, the idea behind the Bonn process appears to have been that the powerful political and military factions that reclaimed power once the Taleban were gone were a necessary evil, and would in time be nudged aside in favour of new democratically-minded political parties. As late as February 2004, Arnault said that "a level playing field for political parties and candidates" must be factored into any timetable for a vote.

"No matter whether we have a presidential election, a parliamentary election or a combination of both, there is out there a sense that too many people out there enjoy a privileged position that could be translated into more political power unless more is done to make sure that more political parties are registered, that political parties have access to the airwaves, and that political parties can operate freely across the country," said Arnault. Such groups have appeared – there are dozens of parties – but despite efforts to forge coalitions they have so far remained on the margins, without the resources to organise and in an environment made hostile by more powerful political players.

Instead, the principal parties now visible are the old armed factions – and they are likely to dominate the political sphere until beyond the general election despite the ban on their direct participation. When it comes to political organisation, says Goodhand, "basically it's about those who have access to the means of coercion".

Formal political structures through which to mediate concerns and interests are not of course the only forum for expressing political ideas – and western-style parties may not be the right vehicle given Afghanistan's recent and more distant history. There does seem to be a desire among many people to participate and be heard. Goodhand thinks that is due in part to the years many Afghans spent living as refugees in Pakistan, "I think there's expectation now that wasn't there before, about wanting to be involved in political processes and some kind of political engagement. And all the research that has been done shows that Afghans have a strong sense of nationhood."

Other analysts pointed to areas where things had improved in terms of public awareness. "People are more aware of their election rights now than they were six months or two years ago," said Tanin. And Sedra spoke of "great strides in terms of opening political space for vulnerable groups, most notably women". However, Sifton, while noting "independent political activity, at least in Kabul, and more freedom of information and publication and a fairly robust civil society", concluded that "on balance, the country is gripped by an atmosphere of fear, and autonomous areas operate outside of state control".


Goodhand argues that the problems now attending the elections were inevitable – they were inbuilt into the scheme of political developments set out at Bonn, and the way it was implemented subsequently. "The Bonn process is inherently flawed for a number of reasons… There's a big mismatch between the ambitions and goals and the resources and time frames, so there's a wish-list of things that are going to happen including democracy, liberalisation, economic growth and so on. The time frames for these are far too short and the resources that have been put on the table are far too little," he said. Goodhand describes the political process that emerged as a result as "a bargain-basement model with insufficient resources put on the table: insufficient military coercive resources, and then unrealistic time frames".

"This process has in many ways been a missed opportunity, you've got to actually go back several steps from the elections and you then see what's underpinning it as well. I think probably in five years time people will say—and they're writing it now—that the missed opportunities were in Bonn and immediately following Bonn, and in a way what is happening now is trying to make the best of a bad job."


With the electoral process now irreversible the question most analysts are asking is not whether the elections will be perfect, but whether they will be just good enough to see the country through to a longer period of relative stability in which reconstruction and institution building can take place. As long ago as November 2003, the Kabul-based think-tank Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit warned that "elections marred by widespread intimidation and irregularities will be regarded as illegitimate….With Afghanistan's future at stake the country cannot afford a losing bet".

For the moment, it is not certain which way the bet will go. "If some of the more dire predictions are wrong and the presidential elections at least have the aura of being free and fair, then there is a chance for the parliamentary elections," said Sedra. Goodhand says it's hard for anyone who has been involved with Afghanistan for many years to be optimistic. Looking ahead to the elections, he accepts "it's not going to be a perfect process, and I suppose the question is how imperfect it's going to be".

Sifton concludes that since things could be a lot worse than they are, that in itself is a plus. "If you were a fire-fighting force you wouldn't know if your strategy worked until there was a fire. In Afghanistan the fire hasn't started yet, hence it hasn't failed yet. "

Interviews conducted by Lillah Fearnley and John Simpson, IWPR researchers in London.

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.