The Taliban are conducting negotiations with Afghan stakeholders to form the next government in the country. Whatever form and shape that takes, it is unlikely to resemble any modern democratic system. While the international community has bemoaned the collapse of the elected government, the fact remains that democracy failed to take root in the country in the 20 years of US occupation. Here’s what explains the failure of the US and its allies’ state-building project in Afghanistan.
What Kind Of Elections Has Afghanistan Had During US Occupation?
Three years after they had ousted the Taliban from power in 2001, the US and its coalition partners facilitated the holding of presidential elections in the country, which brought Hamid Karzai, who was already leading the caretaker government, to power by an overwhelming majority. The country was to have held simultaneous parliamentary elections to elect members of the Afghan national assembly, but the exercise was postponed to 2005.
While the presidential election, the first in Afghan history that saw the people electing the country’s ruler, was seen as opening a new chapter, by the time the parliamentary elections were held next year, grave issues with the Afghan political system had begun to come to light.
Analysts say that a key drawback was the centralisation of power in the hands of the president under the country’s new constitution, which was drafted following a decision by the Emergency Loya Jirga of 2002–03. The initial draft had provided for a prime minister, but the final version had done away with the post, reportedly due to Karzai’s stand that he would not contest if the post was included.
While the presidential election, thus, had a handpicked leader who was the clear favourite to win power, the parliamentary elections that followed in 2005 were more complicated. That is because, in pursuit of the goal to keep Taliban away, the new order that was midwifed by US and its allies gave a big role to the militia commanders and warlords that had fought the Taliban.
The first parliamentary elections in the country were marked by allegations of electoral fraud and low turnouts. Warlords and their associates ended up winning the majority of the seats in the lower house and the provincial council — which elected the members of the upper house — and there began a story that would play out in subsequent elections.
How Has Participation Been At The Afghan Polls?
A basic issue with Afghan elections is the absence of proper data on the number of eligible voters. The country has never had a full census count and voter registration for the 2004 presidential elections was “based on a 1970s incomplete census". Basic flaws with the process meant that people could register multiple times and “the paper-based registration system did not require reliable identification documents for citizens".
A report said that by 2014, “it was estimated that there were around 12 million voters but 23 million voter cards in circulation". But that has never translated into a handsome turnout at the hustings, except in 2004, when more than 83 per cent of eligible voters exercised their franchise. The parliamentary elections the very next year saw voting percentage drop to below 50 per cent. Similar has been the fate of presidential elections. The one in 2009, which Karzai again won, had a turnout of about 39 per cent. The latest presidential polls, held in 2019, saw only 19 per cent of eligible voters cast their ballots.
If the voter participation has been low, the candidate turnout has been anything but. The field for the first presidential election featured at least four contenders, but it is the parliamentary elections that have been befuddling with a multiplicity of contestants.
Reports note that just for Kabul, in the parliamentary elections of 2005, “the ballot was seven pages long and listed 390 candidates". By 2018, there were more than 800 candidates fighting for the same number of seats. That has meant that seats have been won by very small margins, which in turn trigger demands for recount and allegations of electoral fraud, undermining the people’s faith in the democratic process.
The parliamentary elections of 2010, too, were mired in controversy while the one scheduled for 2016 was finally held only in 2018.
What Were The Problems Faced By The Electoral Process?
Problems affecting the democratic process were manifold. There was the threat of the Taliban, which actively discouraged participation and backed those threats by carrying out attacks at polling booths. And, where voting did happen there were widespread accusations of electoral malpractices, including of voter intimidation, ballot stuffing and fraudulent casting of votes.
Such allegations has led to the outcome of every presidential elections, after the first one in 2004, being disputed. The presidential poll requires the winner to bag more than 50 per cent of all votes cast. If no candidate wins outright, a second run-off round is held between the two leading candidates. In 2004, Karzai had won 55.4 per cent of the vote, but the 2009 polls were not so straightforward. A runoff was required between Karzai and Abdullah Abdullah after neither managed to win in the first round of voting, which was alleged to be accompanied by massive voter fraud. But Abdullah withdrew from the process citing a lack of trust in the electoral system.
In 2014, the polls pitted Abdullah against Ashraf Ghani after Karzai was ruled out of contesting due to term limits. Again, the process was marred by allegations of fraud so much so that the entire eight million ballots cast were recounted by a UN delegation. But such was the level of mistrust that the results were never eventually announced and Ghani was handed power on the basis of a political agreement.
Experts point out that “one of the reasons why candidates have not accepted electoral outcomes is the centralised
nature of the political system, which allows one winner to control all state resources and appointments".
“Losing an election is tantamount to losing everything, not least the opportunity to reward supporters with positions in government, which in turn function as a means to generate illegal rents," said a paper by the United States Institute of Peace (USIP).
It is not, therefore, surprising that the 2019 presidential elections saw a repeat of the same circumstances. Ghani was declared to have won but the result was disputed by Abdullah. Both organised their own inauguration ceremonies but, as the country faced a political crisis, both signed a power-sharing deal that laid down that Ghani would remain president and Abdullah would lead the peace talks with the Taliban when they start.
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