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The dust has finally settled on Afghanistan’s June presidential runoff election. After six months of uncertainty, widespread allegations of fraud, and the largest election audit ever conducted worldwide, the crisis reached a surprising conclusion. The new president, Ashraf Ghani, and the runner-up, Abdullah Abdullah (who assumed the newly created post of chief executive officer), agreed to share power and form a national unity government.
Some observers have hailed the agreement as a milestone in the country’s democratic development. They argue that, given the country’s societal and ethnic cleavages, a winner-take-all system was never appropriate for Afghanistan, and that the pact enabled a desperately needed peaceful transfer of power. Others caution that the deal upended the institutional structure established by the 2001 Bonn Agreement—which until now has guided Afghanistan’s political transition—and thus further undermined the country’s weak democracy.
Ghani and Abdullah might well succeed in working together, but it would be a mistake to call their pact a step forward in Afghanistan’s democratic development. In fact, even though the arrangement allowed the country to witness its first peaceful transfer of power since the fall of the Taliban, it also created a host of new challenges. What made the deal necessary in the first place were the deep deficiencies in Afghanistan’s democracy, and to ensure its survival, the new government must address them.
The agreement’s most critical shortfall is that it settled the electoral dispute not through the democratic framework the country worked so hard to build, but by abandoning it. Similar to the previous two elections—a presidential election in 2009 and the parliamentary election in 2010—this vote was decided by relying on an ad hoc democratic triage rather than predictable rules and regulations. Drastic measures remained the only available option after key election officials, including the chief electoral officer, allegedly engaged in fraud, discrediting the vote’s results and further degrading the public’s plummeting confidence in the democratic process.
Moreover, although elections in transitional environments should help consolidate democracy, this presidential election left Afghanistan deeper in transition than it had been before. The new Afghan government established by the national unity agreement is essentially an interim one, slated to exist only until a loya jirga, a grand assembly of tribal leaders that the agreement promised to convene, adopts new constitutional amendments. Even the new post of chief executive officer is a stopgap. Once the constitutional loya jirga convenes, it will consider replacing the position with that of executive prime minister. Nor is this post the only one the agreement left undefined; the exact authority and tasks of “the leader of the runner-up team,” a second top position the pact created, are also ambiguous.
In another worrying sign for the country’s democracy, the agreement gives the president the authority to define these roles’ responsibilities through decree. Ghani could be tempted to use this tool to disempower and marginalize Abdullah, for example, if their relationship develops cracks. And instead of resolving other constitutional bottlenecks, such as the flaws of the electoral system, the agreement simply recognizes the need for changes and calls for the creation of a special commission that would recommend reforms. Yet before deciding what kind of governance Afghanistan should have in the future, it should better define the one it has at the moment—a task made nearly impossible by the system’s transitional nature.
These new challenges added to a long list of other systemic problems. With a parliamentary election called for next year, Afghanistan must now either confront these problems head-on or risk holding another flawed vote that requires ad hoc problem solving and further undermines the Afghan state.
If Afghanistan picks the former option, its first order of business would be creating a voter registry, a tool indispensable in properly preparing for election day and combating fraud. Although the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (the body responsible for administering and supervising elections) registered millions of voters over the past decade, it never instituted a central and reliable system to manage these registrations and assign voters to constituencies. As a result, officials have no way to verify voters’ identities or prevent them from receiving multiple voter ID cards.
This shortfall now stands in the way of holding the loya jirga foreseen by the national unity agreement, since district council elections are necessary for the assembly to be constitutional, and such elections are impossible without assigning voters to districts. Previous loya jirgas have failed to meet this requirement and thus could not legally tackle constitutional reform. But the forthcoming loya jirga must derive its authority directly from organized and transparent district council elections; otherwise, the legitimacy of the amendments it adopts will forever be in doubt. This undertaking will require significant investments of time and resources from the government and the international community, but it’s the only way to ensure the credibility of future constitutional reforms.
What’s more, Afghanistan’s two election management bodies—the Independent Election Commission and the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission—have long been undermined by a lack of accountability, since the president holds the sole authority to appoint their members. (A selection committee introduced in 2013 can only recommend candidates and therefore provides an ineffective check on his power.) The parliament must now rectify the problem by opening the appointment process to a broader group of stakeholders and stripping the president of this authority. Otherwise, Afghanistan risks once again entrusting the management of its elections to individuals who are at best partisan, and at worst criminal.
The parliament should also launch a comprehensive review of the Independent Election Commission’s performance in the presidential runoff, examining allegations that its top individuals orchestrated ballot stuffing. Parliamentarians should demand the prosecution of commission employees found to be complicit in fraud. A complete overhaul of the commission’s leadership should follow, along with efforts to strengthen its institutional independence and bolster the internal and external safeguards that ensure its impartiality.
The success of Afghanistan’s new government depends on not only its commitment to upholding the national unity agreement but also its efforts to address longtime structural problems. These challenges are not insurmountable, but confronting them requires will and commitment—qualities that the Karzai administration lacked. With the Afghan public’s skepticism about democracy at its peak, the Ghani administration could not be faced with a more urgent need for action. It will take more than citizens’ patience to repair this democratic breakdown.