Stopgap Democracy

Afghanistan's Shaky Government

Afghanistan's President Ashraf Ghani at a news conference in Kabul, October 2014. Omar Sobhani / Courtesy Reuters

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.


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