This is a guest note by Oliver Lough, who serves as an editor at the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU).
For some members of the international community, Afghanistan’s parliamentary elections of September 2010 were, among other things, an extended exercise in expectations management. Under the (now much-lambasted) mantra of “Afghanistan is not Switzerland,” UN, NATO and embassy officials all worked hard to convince the world–and themselves–that a messy country would produce a messy vote. “It’s a miracle the whole thing happened at all, we’ll have another shot in four years, so let’s move on.” Or so presumably the thinking went.
But you can only reduce expectations so far before they vanish entirely. If the cluster of research just published on the 2010 polls is anything to go by, it’s a point we may be rapidly approaching. Four complementary reports released over the past fortnight explore the gritty details of how this round of elections played out: The Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit (AREU) deals with the effects of misfiring elections on local power politics and voter perceptions; the Afghanistan Analyst’s Network (AAN) outlines the messy series of post-election arbitrations; and the International Crisis Group (ICG) detailed the political struggle for control over the process. These will soon be followed by the EU Election Assessment Team‘s report documenting the technical problems of the vote itself.
Their conclusions paint a deeply disturbing picture: Underneath the obvious problems of ballot-stuffing, violence, or that not-so-indelible ink, they point to a system fundamentally undermined by its own structural weaknesses, careering from one ad-hoc fix to the next, and drifting further away from any meaningful forms of representation for its voters.
One of the key issues to emerge is just how far removed election results can often be from the votes originally cast. Rather than being decided at the ballot box, the issue of who gets into parliament often ends up in the hands of the Independent Elections Commission (IEC) or the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). Both bodies can and do exercise the power to disqualify candidates or votes, but the process for doing so is deeply opaque and sometimes seemingly arbitrary. Worse, their questionable independence and weak legal basis leaves them open to manipulation or downright bullying, in particular by President Karzai and more pliant elements of the judiciary. The President’s newly-created (and probably unconstitutional) Special Court to investigate electoral fraud is a prime example, and has added yet another layer of uncertainty to the proceedings.
None of these bodies has a clear mandate to dictate definitively when the process is over, leaving it wide open to manipulation and negotiation well after votes have been cast. Rather than generating a clear set of winners and losers, elections appear more of a protracted set of negotiations in which winners, losers and other interested parties–most notably Karzai–compete to manipulate the system. With no end in sight, this process has the potential to be highly destabilisng, exacerbating existing conflicts and generating new ones as candidates jostle for control.
On top of this, current regulations are heavily stacked against the development of political parties. Without the organizational clout they provide, parliament has been left fragmented, weak, and ill-prepared to face down an increasingly autocratic president. ICG goes as far as to argue that a major overhaul of the entire electoral system in favour of a strong, party-oriented parliament is essential to prevent the country from sliding inevitably towards dictatorship–or worse.
Against this background, the issue of representation is almost moot. With elections less about campaigning for votes as they are about behind-the-scenes power-brokering, the tenuous but genuine (and often sole) connection that voters have to Kabul via their MPs is under increasing threat. The system’s unpredictability has led many Afghans to believe their democracy is now simply a rubber stamp for the machinations of strongmen and foreigners. Even in cases where the law has been followed to the letter, the whole edifice now gives off such a strong impression of corruption that many will automatically assume it to be so.
All of the reports clearly state that continuing to tweak the system on the fly in the hope that it will somehow right itself is no longer an option. Monitoring bodies need to be solidified and secured from political interference, voting laws need updating to give political parties a look-in, and the constitution itself needs a major overhaul to give parliament a chance to stand on its own feet. These are major changes that will be tough to implement, not least because existing powerholders have much to gain from keeping things dysfunctional. At a time when many in the international community are looking to scale back their commitments ahead of the planned withdrawal of combat troops in 2014, this might seem like a big ask. But without a major re-engagement on its part, there will be little left do but watch as Afghanistan’s once-promising democracy–along with the billions of dollars spent on fostering it–becomes ever more erratic and unrepresentative.
— Oliver Lough