The South Asia Channel

The Past as Prologue, Without Afghan Political Reforms

Ten years from now, the September 20th assassination of High Peace Council head and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani may be seen as a turning point in the Afghanistan conflict, comparable to the assassination of storied insurgent leader Ahmad Shah Massoud a decade ago. Massoud’s death marked the end of the Taliban’s reign and ushered ...


Ten years from now, the September 20th assassination of High Peace Council head and former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani may be seen as a turning point in the Afghanistan conflict, comparable to the assassination of storied insurgent leader Ahmad Shah Massoud a decade ago. Massoud’s death marked the end of the Taliban’s reign and ushered in the Bonn Agreement — followed as it was by the overwhelming force of the U.S. military to oust the Taliban government that sheltered al-Qaeda. Rabbani’s assassination is poised to mark the beginning of the end of the Bonn era of Afghan politics, during which Afghanistan has engaged fitfully in an experiment in constitutional democracy.

Rabbani was no progressive democrat. However, by killing him in a brazen act of perfidy while he exercised his duties as the head of the High Peace Council, opponents of a Western-leaning, internationally supported Afghan government appear to be signaling their intention to disrupt, if not defeat, an orderly transition from international security control that preserves the status quo of Afghan political power. 

As a result, while the United States focuses on defeating the Taliban and improving Afghan governance by 2014, Afghans are increasingly looking beyond the 2014 horizon toward the political realities they anticipate once the international community departs. Rabbani’s death only deepens the sense of foreboding in Kabul that the politics of the 1990s may be coming back, marked by warlord fiefdoms, fighting among ethnic factions, and an even more ineffective central government.

Afghanistan now faces three different political scenarios for the "transition" that will occur in 2014: If the country’s Constitution is observed, then a newly elected Afghan President will replace Hamid Karzai. If a peace process progresses, a grand bargain between Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Afghanistan’s neighbors could be ratified at a Loya Jirga that establishes a new governing order outside of the electoral process.  Or, if present trends of assassination and corruption continue, Afghanistan will face a deeper security crisis, leading to emergency rule.  

The Rabbani assassination and deteriorating relations between Pakistan, Afghanistan and the U.S. make the grand bargain outcome less likely. And while there is precedent throughout the Middle East for using security threats as a justification for authoritarian government, Afghanistan’s history, terrain, and decentralized political power centers make that model unlikely to produce stability.

Therefore, Afghanistan and the international community face a stark choice between the Bonn Agreement’s fundamental promise of a democratic transition of power (which has never occurred for a head of state in Afghanistan’s history), or a return to the old ways of political bartering and unstable autocratic mandates. Indeed, a democratic transition to a more inclusive Afghan government may be the only way to avoid a civil war once most international troops withdraw. This means a democratic transition of power in 2014 should be the highest political priority in Afghanistan over the next three years.

Based on the past two elections, a legitimate democratic transition cannot occur in 2014 without significant electoral reforms. There are a number of technical fixes that are required, but the biggest obstacle to mending the serious flaws of past Afghan elections is political. The prevalence of electoral fraud has allowed Afghan political leaders from all factions to maintain fantasies about the size of their political base and the outsized portion of political power to which they feel they are entitled. Rather than building durable political bases that can reliably support them at the polls, Afghan political leaders have invested the most time and energy into ensuring friends are in charge of district polling centers, extra ballots are available for loyalists to stuff, and, if that fails, intervening at the highest levels to adjust the final results. 

None of this will change overnight. But many Afghans still agree with Churchill that choosing their leaders democratically is the worst process to follow — except for the alternatives. Rabbani’s death may cause a reflexive step backward toward the old political framework that predominated in the 90s. However, the dire consequences of missing an election in 2014 and having a power struggle for the presidency outside of the Constitutional order should afford a moment of clarity in which the advantages of reforming the electoral system outweigh the temptation to pursue the same fraud as before.

Given sufficient political will, the fundamental ways to fix the electoral system are already well known:

  • First, there must be an accurate and comprehensive voter registry that identifies how many voters are in each constituency, and provides a way to verify voter identity at the polls. This could be high tech, using biometric tools, or low tech, using existing taskeras (individual identity documents), but the old voter registration system is so fraud-ridden that it must be replaced.
  • Second, the Electoral Law that governs the country’s elections must be revised to provide systemic incentives for political parties to form and promote candidates who can appeal to voters’ interests. This would likely involve some form of proportional representation for political parties, or splitting political constituencies into single member districts. More party organization would also reduce the number of weak candidates in the elections, and increase scrutiny of the process.
  • Third, the officials responsible for administering and adjudicating elections must be seen as credible and independent actors, which means that their authority must be unambiguous, and their selection must involve real buy-in from different political groups. Five of the seven IEC commissioners’ terms for the Independent Election Commission (IEC) have expired along with the previous Electoral Complaints Commission’s mandate. These positions should be filled with credible leaders that have Parliamentary approval.

For any of these changes to happen, however, there must be champions of reform who have significant political influence and a sufficient interest in improving the system. Civil society activism has not proved to be an agent of change so far on electoral issues, and with the high stakes on the table in 2014, it is unlikely that NGOs alone can affect power-brokers’ political calculations. This means that the international community must engage with the Afghan political leadership in frank discussions about what their fundamental grievances are with the current electoral framework, how they plan to gain the popular legitimacy necessary to govern Afghanistan beyond 2014, and how to therefore design an electoral system that accommodates the core demands of multiple political and ethnic factions. 

The tendency in Washington is for discussions about Afghan elections to involve speculation about who the next leader of Afghanistan could be, and then lament the lack of obvious candidates. However, as many Afghans point out, Karzai was not an obvious leader when the Bonn process began; he became the consensus choice once it was clear he had U.S. support and was the least objectionable among the mix of factions with a seat at the table. In other words, political context and the process of selection matter more than individual merits.

Therefore, the immediate focus should be on re-calibrating the incentives and rewards of the electoral system to produce a more fair and predictable result rather than trying to pick a winner in advance.  This should start by making good on Afghanistan’s commitment at the Kabul Conference last year to initiate "a strategy for long term electoral reform that addresses in

particular the sustainability of the electoral process," and gives advantages to political parties that organize slates of qualified candidates and protects against disenfranchisement of groups that, due to geographic or security reasons, will not have equal access to the polls.

The next three years present a last opportunity to correct the errors caused by backing individuals over institutions as a governance strategy.  By investing in political and electoral reforms that incentivize broader participation in the democratic process, there may be an opportunity to promote national reconciliation, even if the peace process led by Rabbani falters in the wake of his death. Otherwise, the chances that the democratic framework of the Bonn agreement will survive the 2014 transition are slim, and Afghans will be right to hedge now against emergency rule or, even worse, civil war.

Scott Worden is a Senior Rule of Law Advisor at the U.S. Institute of Peace.  He served as a Commissioner on the 2009 Afghanistan Electoral Complaints Commission and was an observer of the 2010 Parliamentary Elections. 

NEXT: Shamila Chaudhary, The Ideological Failings of the Afghan War

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