Should Afghanistan postpone presidential election?
The current political process in Afghanistan, which was shaped in Germany in December 2001, has become obsolete. The country has been sliding back into political fragmentation, which is considered the main cause behind the deteriorating situation. Therefore, it is time to review the entire process anew.
In the wake of the US-led international military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, almost all of the country’s internal stakeholders were brought together in Bonn to agree on a framework for a new political process, which received the blessing of all major regional stakeholders. However, the Taliban were excluded from the process, and in hindsight, that was an irreparable mistake.
The Bonn agreement centered on a political power-sharing mechanism among different major ethnic groups based on what percentage of the population they represent (40% Pashtuns, 30% Tajiks, 15% Hazaras, 10% Uzbeks, and the remaining 5% other smaller groups). In addition, a historical and tacit agreement on Pashtun leadership existed among Afghans, because prior to the communist coup in 1978 the country had been ruled for over 200 years by the Durrani tribes of southwestern Afghanistan, where the Taliban first emerged as a politico-military force in the midst of the civil war in 1994.
In fact, this new power-sharing mechanism functioned well during the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections, because regardless of who were the winners and losers, major ethnic groups were represented in the government and received their respective shares of power. However, the inflection point in the political process post-2001 has been the contested presidential election in 2014, which provoked ethnic tensions between Pashtuns and Tajiks, and thus the inter-ethnic consensus fell apart.
President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun from the southeast, lost the support of Tajiks in the 2014 election because he failed to find a prominent Tajik leader to join his ticket as a running mate. In addition, the Tajiks overwhelmingly rallied around the chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah, who was representing their interests. Therefore, in the run-up to the presidential election, the internal political consensus, a tremendous achievement after decades of civil war, was shattered beyond repair.
Consequently, as a result of a fraudulent election, the two rival camps were forced to constitute the National Unity Government (NUG), and instead of working together, they have engaged in mutual smear tactics that have resulted in further ethnic polarization. In addition, all the institutions created post-2001, such as the presidency, the parliament, and even the constitution itself, have lost their legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the biggest achievement by the United States and its allies in Afghanistan has been a democratic political process that has incorporated internationally accepted values including human rights, women rights, and freedom of expression. However, the challenge for Afghans and our international partners is finding a way to salvage the current political process and thus prevent the country from moving backward.
There is a growing consensus in Afghanistan that the outcome of next year’s presidential election will be another weak and dysfunctional government in Kabul, which will again be a burden on the international community
There is a consensus among Afghan intellectuals and Western diplomats in Kabul that the only way out of the current crisis is to move to a more legitimate government through a credible and acceptable presidential election in 2019.
However, as I explained in my Asia Times opinion article “The election shambles in Afghanistan,” there is a growing fear that the presidential election in 2019 will be rigged and therefore Afghans do not expect it to result in a more legitimate government.
In addition, the end goal for the United States and its Nato allies in Afghanistan is not defeating the insurgents militarily but rather forcing them into a political settlement with the government in Kabul. However, they are not willing to negotiate with a government that has a cloud of illegitimacy hanging over it.
Also, regardless of who wins next year’s presidential election, a heavily centralized government and a president with near-absolute authority without adequate oversight institutions, such as an independent judiciary and an effective parliament, is bound to fail. Therefore, there has been a growing demand for an amendment to the Afghan constitution, which was hastily adopted without a vigorous debate by an assembly of Afghan elders in December 2013.
Meanwhile, Afghanistan needs an effective government capable of addressing looming challenges such as political fragmentation, ethnic polarization, and a rapidly deteriorating security and economic situation. However, there is a growing consensus in Afghanistan that the outcome of next year’s presidential election will be another weak and dysfunctional government in Kabul, which will again be a burden on the international community. Therefore, the only alternative is to opt for a caretaker government to replace the NUG and thus postpone the 2019 presidential election until all necessary conditions for free and fair elections are met.
The sole mandate of the caretaker government for a maximum of two years must be fixing a broken electoral process and making it transparent, fair, and acceptable in the eyes of us Afghans and our international partners. In addition, a reduced and effective cabinet could improve governance, start the process of amending the Afghan constitution, and open the door for unambiguous negotiations with the Taliban.
Indeed, only a government emerging from a transparent and independent electoral process, free of any political influence, can lead the country out of the current crisis. Also, it could amend the constitution and start a painful but necessary governmental reform process. This is the only viable way to restore the internal political consensus and mend fences with neighboring countries, which is considered a prerequisite for drawing the Taliban into a political dialogue.
Ultimately, Afghanistan becoming a stable country, living in peace with itself and with its neighbors, relies on a transparent and democratic political process, which could lead to an inclusive, responsive, and accountable government in Kabul.