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).

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