Category Archives: Afghanistan

Afghanistan – The government of national unity in crisis over electoral reform

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In September 2014, after months of deadlock over the contested electoral results, the two presidential candidates signed a power-sharing deal to protect national unity, introducing the office of the Chief Executive. The relationship between Ashraf Ghani, President, and Abdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive, has not always been rosy with frequent conflicts erupting between the two highest offices of the state. The latest chapter in this troubled relationship is the conflict over electoral reform. There is a shared agreement that electoral reform is of fundamental importance in order to ensure a fair electoral process on the occasion of the next Parliamentary election which will take place in September 2015. Last Thursday, Abdullah declared that the upcoming parliamentary election must not be held unless the national electoral system, which he forcefully criticised during the negotiations for the power-sharing agreement in 2014, is changed.

After becoming the leaders of the National Unity Government, Ghani and Abdullah promised to reform the electoral system in order to prevent crises in future elections. Some amendments are under discussion in the Parliament, in particular in the appointment process and responsibilities of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Further changes include statutes making the IEC a temporary body only formed during election time, requiring members of the commission to go through a re-appointment process in a bid to boost their accountability.

However, these changes are not considered to be enough by law experts, MPs and by foreign donors. Members of the Judicial Commission of the House of Representatives are strongly in favor of further reform. ‘Afghanistan was not brought to crisis by Al-Qaeda, or the Taliban, but Afghanistan was brought to crisis by the corruption of the electoral commissions,’ said Muhammad Abdo, a member of the Parliament’s Judicial Commission, referring to the period of uncertainty prior to the formation of the National Unity Government.

Also foreign donors and international institutions are calling for extensive reform. The report by EU chief observer, Thijs Berman, released in December 2014, makes several recommendations, calling for an independent board to nominate all members of Afghanistan’s IEC and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC). The report argues that investigation mechanisms around electoral offenses and corruption need to be reinforced and that a biometric voter identification data base should be introduced. Also, measures to ensure that women have access to secure and appropriate polling locations, led by female staff, should be implemented.

Abdullah agrees with the necessity of boosting the reform, not surprisingly as the IEC and the ECC were both accused by him during the election to have conspired in favor of his rival Ashraf Ghani winning the presidential race. Mujeebul Rahman Rahimi, a spokesman for the Chief Executive, recalled that the reform of Afghanistan’s election laws and electoral commissions was a precondition to Abdullah’s acceptance of the power-sharing plan with Ghani. ‘Reform in the electoral system, election laws and election institutions – who were directly involved in the fraud – was among the preconditions to the formation of the national unity government,’ Mr. Rahimi declared on Thursday. ‘Reform in the electoral system is important, and without it, there will be no elections’ he added.

However, there is uncertainty over how and what the reform should change. Mr. Rahimi declared that the main reason behind the delay in reform is disagreement between Ghani and Abdullah over ‘reform details’. In particular, ‘regarding the creation of an electoral reform commission, the President Ghani’s opinion was that the commission should be created after the announcement of the cabinet, but our [meaning the Office of the Chief Executive, Mr. Abdullah] preference was to create it after the inauguration and it should have started its work and should not have been related to the cabinet’.

Also, despite agreeing on the necessity of reforming the system, the IEC is calling for caution. The IEC’s commissioner Sareer Ahmad Barmak declared that nobody including the President could fire the IEC commissioners unless they prove the crimes of IEC officials. ‘Reforms are required both in the electoral system and the structure of the election commission,’ Barmak said, however adding that ‘some personal reforms are also being proposed from outside which is intolerable for us’. Moreover, commentators maintain that MPs do not have the legal right to change the election laws this year. ‘Based on the law, the House does not have the right to bring changes to the electoral law during the last year of their tenure,’ university professor Tahir Hashemi told, adding that ‘they can bring changes in the appointment, jurisdiction and authorities of the electoral commissions.’

There is a widespread concern that the gridlock over the reform could spark further uncertainty in the country, to the point of bringing about protests and disorder should the upcoming parliamentary election be held under the same law. Fuelling possible popular distrust and lack of confidence in the electoral process, there are rumors that the members of the electoral commissions are holding meetings with MPs to dissuade them from supporting the legislation by promising favors in exchange for upcoming elections.

Afghanistan – Explaining the presidential election stalemate: foreign interference and local political culture

This is a guest post by Clément Therme at EHESS, Paris

Photo Clément Therme (4)

In 2001, Afghanistan became the first laboratory for the neoconservative political project of “exporting democracy.” Thirteen years later, the inability of the country’s political system to guarantee a fair electoral process has created a political vacuum possibly lethal to the fragile Afghan political system. Two months after the June 14th electoral run-off between Abdullah Abdullah and Ashraf Ghani, the two front-runners of the presidential election, electoral results are still unknown. Widespread accusations of fraud are indeed delaying the result, and diplomatic efforts by the UN and the US have so far failed to move the process forward. The role of the president is vital to the country due to the highly centralised presidential system put in place under the influence of the Americans after 2001.

There are two sets of factors – internal and external – that explain the current stalemate. Domestically, Afghanistan remains a failed state, unable to control its territory and effectively organise elections. In addition, ethnicization of politics remains a major issue in the country, with the mobilisation of ethnic Pashtuns being the main factor behind Ashraf Ghani’s electoral success at the second round of the presidential election. Votes for him increased from 31.56% at the first round of the election, which took place in April 2014, to 56.4% in June – figures that are however challenged by the contender Abdullah Abdullah. Some experts interpreted the first round result as the end of the warlords’ system with its ethnic legacy, and the beginning of a new era of Afghan politics. On the contrary, popular perceptions and the result of the second round seem to prove that ethnicity still plays a central role. Indeed Ghani’s supporters insisted that his electoral success was the “victory of the majority” of the population, the Pashtun, over the minority. It is clear that the ethnicization of Afghan politics remains the main challenge for the stability of the country over the coming months.

On the other hand, Abdullah Abdullah’s supporters denounce the lack of credibility of the electoral results, especially in Pashtun provinces. The scale of the fraud could indeed involve as much as a quarter of the ballots (2 out of 8 million votes). Abdullah accused Karzai of orchestrating Ghani’s electoral success at the June election as a sign of solidarity due to their common Pashtun identity. Abdullah’s accusation are consistent with the popular and widespread belief in conspiracy theories, which led to the resignation of Zia ul-Haq Amarkhail from his post as Secretariat Chief of the Independent Election Commission’s (IEC) in June 2014. This belief, strengthened by nationalism, holds that the IEC is part of a British conspiracy to destabilise Afghanistan, and it is deeply rooted in the long history of foreign interventions in Afghanistan’s internal affairs. Conspiracy is one of the crucial factors reinforcing the popularity of anti-government groups like the Taliban and the Pakistan-based Haqqani network. As a result, the widespread dissatisfaction with the 2014 presidential election results is likely to politically weaken the next president. While constitutionally remaining the most powerful man in Afghanistan, he could indeed suffer from a lack of popular legitimacy due to the controversy surrounding his election. In other words, part of the population considers that the election of Afghanistan’s next president is the result of foreign, in this case American intervention combined with a deal-making amongst the political elite. Consequently, the mistrust between people and their political representatives will only widen.

Beyond the widespread belief in conspiracy theories, it is worth mentioning the external factors that are affecting the controversial presidential contest. Generally speaking, when it comes to foreign intervention in Afghanistan, two opposite narratives are present in the country. Whereas one considers it positive, the other one highlights the high cost Afghanistan pays for its dependence on foreign aid and security. The positive view on foreign influence is based on the belief that national actors are incapable of peacefully resolving Afghanistan’s endemic political infighting, which dominated the 2014 presidential election. When John Kerry visited Afghanistan in August 2014, Hasht-e Subh, Herat’s newspaper, highlighted the role he played in mediating between Ghani and Abdullah, stating that his intervention avoided a political and ethnic “explosion” (monfajer) inside the country.

On the contrary, those with negative views on foreign influence point to its tragic consequences, among which is the fact that Afghan institutions have traditionally lacked internal legitimacy. This has been the fate of a number of Afghan rulers, such as the King Shah Shuja Durrani, who was assassinated in 1842 because he was brought to power by the British and accordingly accused of being the servant of a foreign power. The incumbent president Hamid Karzai risked a similar reputation, and it is no coincidence that in the last year of his presidency he seemed determined to ward off the accusation of being an American puppet. In 2013, Karzai’s refusal to sign the US-Afghanistan Strategic Partnership Agreement (the SPA, which allows the presence of a limited number of US troops for training purposes) was seen as a move to distance himself from the US, in a bid to guarantee his own survival after the presidential term ended. Moreover, Karzai recently started to use anti-American rhetoric echoing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s political statements, especially in relation to the supposed US psychological warfare against Muslim states.

Moreover, Afghan authorities denounce interference from regional powers, namely Pakistan and Iran, as a threat to the stabilisation of the country. The two presidential candidates accuse each other of being in hock to a powerful neighbour: Ghani (a Pashtun) is supposed to be close to Pakistan while Abdullah (a Tajik) to Iran. Despite the influence of the two regional powers in Afghanistan, their respective interests are based mainly on security concerns rather than on hegemonic political projects.

Whatever the final result of the presidential election will be, Afghanistan needs to face numerous challenges that go well beyond its well-known problems with corruption and nepotism. In addition to this, and along with a much needed decentralisation reform able to improve the daily life of the Afghan people, the next president will need to secure his political legitimacy against the threat of divisions and split that will put national security at serious risk.

Clément Therme is an Associate Fellow at the School for Advanced Studies in Social Sciences (EHESS, Paris). He is author of Les relations entre Téhéran et Moscou depuis 1979 (French University Press, 2012).

Afghanistan – Second round of the presidential election

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On Saturday 14th June, Afghan citizens voted for their president in the second round of the presidential election that took place on the 5th April. In April, none of the candidates obtained more than 50% of the votes, making a second round necessary. The two contenders are Abdullah Abdullah, a close associate of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik leader of the Northern Alliance, turned into a doctor and Minister of Foreign Affairs between 2001 and 2005; and Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a World Bank technocrat and former Minister of Finance between 2002 and 2004. The results are still unknown, and doubts have been voiced about the actual number of people that turned out to vote and the likelihood of electoral fraud. However, Afghanistan could hardly bear the cost of further disorder and political uncertainty, which would not only undermine the economy but also weaken the central government’s power to manage the country after the withdrawal of foreign troops. In the meantime, the incumbent, Hamid Karzai, continues acting as the president. According to the Constitution, he is barred from seeking a third re-election, a condition which makes the current election the first democratic transfer of presidential powers in the country.

Both second-round contenders promise to sign a long-delayed security pact with the United States, which President Hamid Karzai has always rejected. This deal would allow nearly 10,000 American troops to remain in the country until 2016 after the withdrawal expected in December 2014. The troops will conduct counterterrorism operations and continue training and advising the Afghan army and police. Both declare that they will fight for peace and against corruption. Abdullah and Ghani Ahmadzai, however, have also a number of differences. In particular, their different ethnic and biographical background ended up mirroring the very troubled history of this war-torn country.

Abdullah was a vocal critic of the Taliban during their years in power and fought against them along with Ahmad Shah Massoud. Because of this, he ended up by being perceived as the non-Pashtun candidate. Although he was once an ally of Karzai, serving in his government as foreign minister, he challenged the incumbent president in the 2009 election. Then, though, he dropped out after the first round to protest what he said was large-scale voting fraud.

Ghani Ahmadzai is a technocrat economist, former academic and American citizen who gave up his passport to run for the Afghan presidency in 2009. He worked as an adviser to Karzai and served as finance minister in his Cabinet. He is perceived as a Pashtun with no Jihadist history. He is seen as the favorite by a large majority of the Pashtuns. Because of his ‘American’ past, he has emphasised his Pashtun ethnicity by adopting his tribal name ‘Ahmadzai’, growing a beard, performing a Hajj pilgrimage and showcasing piousness.

According to official sources and to the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan, more than 7 million Afghans turned out to cast their vote. This seems to suggest that the very serious security threats caused by the Taliban’s opposition to the election have not succeeded in keeping voters away. Nevertheless, elections have been marked by a high degree of violence. By Saturday 14th June, there had been more than 150 attacks, with 10 Afghan soldiers, 14 civilians and 19 insurgents killed.

Over and above security issues, legal ones are also making headlines as candidates are very suspicious of the trustworthiness of the electoral results. As already voiced by an observer, a major fear is that candidates are focusing on fraud in an unscrupulous attempt to set the ground for complaints if they lose. Echoing the nearly 300 complaints filed against electoral procedures and against the Independent Election Commission’s staff, Abdullah has declared that he would not accept the results of Saturday’s election unless the IEC Chief, Zia-ul-Haq Amarkhail, appointed by Karzai, is suspended and a full investigation of possible electoral fraud is conducted. This declaration is a further obstacle to a smooth electoral process in Afghanistan.

Definitive results are expected to be declared on the 22nd July.

Afghanistan – Fraud and security concerns cast a shadow over elections

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On Saturday, Afghans will vote for their preferred candidates at both presidential and local elections. Out of a total population of 31 million people, there are about 12 eligible voters, an increase of almost 4 million since the last election in 2010 as more people have registered to vote this time. According to a poll conducted by the Independent Election Commission, which had been established by the last electoral law approved in July 2013 and which is overseeing the whole process, about 76% of registered voters will participate in upcoming elections. Voters will choose from eight presidential candidates and will elect representatives to the 34 provinces that compose the Afghan territory. The incumbent president, Hamid Karzai, who has ruled the country since the Taliban were ousted by the US-led invasion in 2001, is constitutionally barred from seeking a third term.

The presidential election is attracting more attention than the local one, because of the relevance of the race. Poor security conditions and fears of electoral fraud are casting a shadow over the reliability of the electoral process, which is considered to be crucial for the stability of the country after ISAF withdrawal. However, concerns linked to the security of local elections and candidates are also high, given the fact that few days ago 18 candidates were ‘abducted’ by the Taliban. Since the beginning of the electoral campaign, the Taliban have been responsible for the most deadly attacks against the candidates themselves, campaign headquarters, and the Independent Election Commission. Yesterday, another attack was conducted by the Taliban against a provincial council candidate, who died along with nine of his supporters in the northern Sar-e-Pul province.

Concerns about the likelihood of electoral fraud in the presidential election are also present, according to the candidates themselves. Fraud is even considered inevitable, with more than 6,000 polling centres, many of them in remote areas difficult to monitor. Abdullah Abdullah, one of the favourite presidential candidates, declared that if fraud costs him the election, he would not advocate violence. Instead, he would mobilise thousands of people to effectively shut down the country’s institutions until the vote was resolved. However, many fear that candidates are focusing on fraud in an unscrupulous attempt to set the ground for complaints if they lose, and risk discouraging voters and discrediting the election process.

Three out of the eleven original presidential candidates withdrew from the race. Of the eight remaining candidates, there are three front-runners: Zalmay Rassoul, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah (a French-trained physician, an anthropologist, and an opthalmologist respectively). They have declared that they would sign an agreement with the US to allow American troops to remain in the country beyond 2014. However, given the unstable security environment and the Talibans’ apparent strength, it is not clear what kind of compromise, or moderate position they could adopt in order to enhance national security standards.