Category Archives: Afghanistan

Thomas H. Johnson – The Illusion of Afghanistan’s Electoral Representative Democracy

This is a guest post by Thomas H. Johnson, Research Professor and Director, Program for Culture and Conflict Studies, Department of National Security Affairs, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA ( It is based on his recent paper  in Small Wars and Insurgencies.

On October 9, 2004 Afghanistan held a presidential election to replace the post-Taliban, transitional government that had administered Afghanistan since December 2001.  Nearly a year later, September 2005, parliamentary and provincial council elections were held.  This electoral sequence was repeated in August 2009 for Afghan presidential and provincial councils and in September 2010 for the Afghan Parliament.  The establishment of an electoral system and process was a key foundation of the Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, or UN-sponsored Bonn Accords and Process.[i]

While the Afghan election process was originally greeted with great international fanfare and enthusiasm in 2004, it is now widely recognized, as suggested above, that recent Afghan elections raise significant and serious questions concerning the legitimacy and utility of the entire Afghan electoral system, as well as the “democratic process.”  Indeed a number of years ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) suggested that the “prolonged crisis over Afghanistan’s … elections has undermined [then] President Hamid Karzai’s credibility” and has politically isolated him.  The ICG goes on to posit that the Afghan election process “could plunge the country deeper into not just political but armed conflict.”[ii]  Things have not changed with the election of Ashraf Ghani.  Moreover, with long-delayed parliamentary and provincial elections scheduled for July 7, 2018 and the presidential elections scheduled for 2019, it is important to raise fundamental questions concerning the Afghan election process.[iii]

The 2009 Presidential Election

On August 20, 2009 Afghanistan held its second-ever presidential election.[iv]  Ostensibly 41 candidates vied for office; the most prominent of which were Hamid Karzai (incumbent Afghan President), Dr. Abdullah Abdullah (United Front candidate, ethnic Tajik, former Northern Alliance leader, and former Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs), Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai (former Afghan Finance Minister and leader of the Afghan diaspora), and Dr. Ramazan Bashardost (ethnic Hazara and former Afghan Planning Minister).  Each presidential candidate ran on a ticket with up to two vice presidential candidates.[v]

While some in the international community did not believe that the Afghan Presidential Election should take place at all, deeming it an “unnecessary risk to all involved,”[vi] Karzai insisted that the election take place as planned.   Arguments against the election were premised on the assumption that the presumed security risks involved in an accelerating Taliban insurgency/jihad were too threatening for a creditable election to be held; not only would the election require vast organizational efforts, due partly to the winter season, but also significant augmentation of security personnel and measures to protect the polls and participating population.  Threats to the population were apparently high since the Taliban had advised people to boycott the elections. Afghanistan’s Free and Fair Elections Foundation (FEFA), the largest Afghan observer organization, feared that the inability of local and international observers to monitor the elections in all areas of the country, especially the most volatile and remote locations, would negatively affect the transparency of the elections.  The foundation’s head, Jandad Spinghar, stated that an issue of concern for observers would be the problems associated with the insecurity and the lack of information about the importance and the role of observers in the elections.[vii]

Election Results

Though Karzai emerged as the eventual winner, revelations of countrywide electoral fraud by all presidential candidates stripped him of the majority 50% plus votes attributed to.[viii]  The ECC served as the key electoral watchdog, composed primarily of non-Afghan officials.   It was the ECC which exposed the extent of the fraud in electoral registrations and ballots, and which subsequently invalidated about one million or approximately one-third of Karzai votes in the presidential election, forcing a second round of voting.  The EEC investigated 600 of the most serious complaints and “sample audited” suspect votes at 3,377 polling stations.  It dismissed all the votes cast at 210 of these stations.  In the aftermath of the election analysis, the ECC determined that Karzai only received 48.29% of the vote.[ix]  On October 19, 2009 the ECC announced the completion of the audit process based on a review of the ballot boxes that had been quarantined by the IEC.  The investigation showed that no candidate received over 50% of the vote, and that a run-off vote was required to determine a winner. Karzai’s campaign team attributed the decision to foreign interference and hinted at not accepting the results.  This triggered a series of high-diplomatic negotiations, encouraging the candidates to accept the findings.  On October 21, the IEC announced that Karzai had received 49.67% of the vote and Abdullah received 30.59% of the vote.[x]

A subsequent run-off election was scheduled for November 7, 2009 but on November 1, 2009 Abdullah Abdullah withdrew from the race, making the presidential run-off a one-man race.  On November 2, 2009 the IEC declared Karzai as president-elect.

The criticality of ethnic voting preferences remains the single most important dynamic of the Afghan electoral process. Karzai was elected not only without a majority national vote; he also failed to garner any significant vote from any ethnic group outside of his own. Karzai’s claim that he represented a truly national candidate that had support across ethnic lines was not borne out by these results.  And just as we observed of the 2004 election, the 2009 Afghan Presidential elections was “belied by ethnic divisions, which, unless properly addressed, threaten to derail any long-term hope of a democratic Afghanistan.”[xi]

The 2010 National Parliamentary Elections and the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV)

During his address to the first session of parliament on February 20, 2010 Karzai laid out his plans for parliamentary elections in September, highlighting his goal to “fill the gaps” of the problems that arose during the presidential elections.  He affirmed his avowed commitment to address these issues by limiting the “interference by others in the election process,” promising to reform the structure of the ECC and “afghanizing” the election process.[xii]  As virtually all Afghans saw the international element as the only check against rampant corruption in a Karzai-packed commission, these efforts to try to deflect criticism away from his regime and onto foreign meddlers and agents fooled few Afghans and simply increased his own unpopularity.  Absent from his comments was any discussion of possibly the most important factor influencing the Afghan legislative elections – the single non-transferable vote (SNTV).

The SNTV electoral system allows multiple candidates to run for seats that have been allocated at a specified level per Afghan Province.   For the 2010 election, 2,577 candidates filed to run for 249 legislative positions.  The number of seats allocated was based on the total population per province.[xiii]  The SNTV electoral process allows one voter to cast a single vote for one candidate.  This results in a single candidate obtaining a very low percentage of the votes.  Indeed, many Members of Parliament were “elected” from their districts with less than one percent of the popular vote in that district.

The SNTV electoral system does not allocate seats by district but rather by population size.  Provinces with fewer seats than districts cannot possibly have representation for all their districts.[xiv]  Additionally, districts with larger populations generally have more political pull or influence than those with smaller populations.

664 candidates competed for the 33 Wolesi Jirga seats available for the province of Kabul and a total of 486,111 valid ballots were cast.  Muhammad Mohaqiq, chairman of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan and former Vice-President and the Minister of Planning in the interim government of Afghanistan was the leading vote getter just as he was during the 2005 election.[xv]  He received a total of 3.6% of the vote!  That a mere 3.6% of the vote could represent the most popular candidate as indicated by total votes received is disturbing, and has serious implications for Afghan “representative democracy.”  Overall, 21 of the 33 candidates elected to the Wolesi Jirga from Kabul (64%) were elected with less than 1% of the total vote in their district.


This analysis clearly suggests that Afghan elections as well as the entire Afghan electoral process is fraught with deep structural problems that ultimately undermine both the credibility and legitimacy of the Kabul regime.  The International Crisis Group (IGC) suggests that the “prolonged crisis” over Afghan elections “is paralyzing government and weakening already fragile institutions … [and] stoke ethnic tensions and could drive disenfranchised Afghans into the arms of the Taliban.”[xvi]  Moreover, the continuing election crisis as we saw vividly in the 2014 election is already deepening an on-going conflict between the Afghan executive and legislative branches.

It is particularly problematic that many of the problems affecting the Afghan electoral system have long been known by Kabul, the UN and the US, yet little has been done resolve these problems or to promote election reform.  It should also be noted that this analysis does not explore the broader and untested assumption that democracy and an electoral system per se are genuinely a source of legitimacy of governance, in the Weberian sense, in a country that has never known them and where literacy rates nationally hover around 10-20 percent.  Democracy is a political system, not something instinctive in human DNA.

This analysis does clearly suggest that legislative voting based on the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) continues to plague Afghanistan.  The goal of any electoral process should be to ensure that a representative government can be formed, but in the case of Afghanistan, the SNTV is significantly hampering the development of representative institutions.[xvii]  In addition, the SNTV system clearly distorts multi-seat constituencies.  The fact that almost all legislators continue to be elected with a fraction of the popular vote, many less than 1% of the vote, presents a variety of problems.   The mere fact that both the 2005 and 2010 Wolesi Jirga Elections witnessed winning candidates, nationwide, receiving an average of 35% of the votes cast suggests the unviability of the system as a means of expressing popular representation.  It results in a group of parliamentarians who are seemingly not beholden to anyone but themselves.  The simple fact is that these “representatives” may be virtually unknown by the majority of the population and may thus have no support amongst their “constituents,” a system reminiscent of the “rotten boroughs” of the British parliament before 1832.   In the final analysis, the Afghan electoral system takes the power away from the people or constituents and puts it in the hands of a nontransparent, personality-based politics.

The SNTV electoral process is a complicated process that can only work under ideal conditions.  Important factors in Afghanistan such as security, ethnic diversity, and gender roles all play a significant role making SNTV unworkable in the Afghan context, but the lack of a mature and disciplined (and officially discouraged) Afghan political party system in particular makes SNTV inappropriate for Afghanistan.   As suggested by the IGC, “the absence of disciplined political parties to carefully analyze prospects and to ensure that their votes are evenly distributed among candidates results more often than not in inequitable political representation.”[xviii]

Over the past hundred years and as suggested above, national politics has not been of much concern to the ordinary Afghan, who made decreasing the state’s influence at local levels his number one priority.[xix]   This constant deflection of central authority in the everyday lives of the Afghans allowed for traditional governing structures to remain and slowed their evolution into more modern structures.   As the central government fights to gain access to these local structures of governance, it has been met with increased resistance and eventual revolt.   This cycle has repeated itself over many different Afghan regimes using varying models of government.

The challenge now facing the current Afghan government is the daunting task of uniting the Afghan people while not repeating the mistakes of the past. And this all needs to be done in the context of massive government corruption and a continuing, significant Taliban insurgency wrapped in the narrative of jihad.[xx]  The tricky balancing act of fostering an overarching national identity without being perceived as privileging particular identities requires strong leadership and a willingness to challenge traditional ethnic, linguistic, and religious norms when need be.  Karzai and Ghani Administrations have seriously failed relative to this dynamic. Literacy and civics are the sine qua non of any democracy and Afghanistan is severely deficient in both.


[i] United Nations Security Council, Agreement on the Provincial Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the

Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions, 5 December 2001, S/2001/1154.

[ii] International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate: Update Briefing,” Asia Briefing, No. 117, (Kabul/Brussels, 23 February 2011), pg. 1.

[iii] For a series of excellent analyses of Afghan elections by the Afghan Analysis Network, see: Martine van Bijlert , “Afghan Elections Dilemma: Finish before it finishes you,” August 31, 2014, ; Martine van Bijlert, “Polling Day Fraud in the Afghan Elections,” September 9, 2009, ; Ehsan Qaane and Martine van Bijlert, “Elections in Hibernation: Afghanistan’s stalled electoral reform,” June 17, 2015, ; Thomas Ruttig, “Elections (31): Afghanistan’s confusing election maths,” June 19, 2014, Thomas Ruttig, “Pluralistic within Limits, but Not Democratic: Afghanistan’s political landscape before the 2014 elections,” .

[iv] In addition to the presidential race this election also saw 3197 candidates vie for 420 provincial council positions.   For an excellent analysis of the presidential election see: Crisis Group Asia Briefing N°96, Afghanistan: Elections and the Crisis of Governance, 25 November 2009; and Crisis Group Asia Report N°171, Afghanistan’s Election Challenges, June, 24 2009.

[v] The selection of a particular vice presidential candidate was often aimed at ethnically balancing a candidate’s “ticket.”   For example, Karzai retained Vice President Karim Khalilli, an ethnic Hazara.  Karzai replaced his first Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud (a Tajik) with Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the powerful Tajik warlord, leader of the Northern Alliance and former Minister of Defense.[v]  Ironically during the 2004 Presidential election, Karzai dismissed Fahim from his ticket on the last official date for filing of presidential election candidacy forms and replaced him with another Tajik, Ahmad Zia Masood.

[vi] James Bays, “The Words of the Professor,” Blogs, Aljazeera, November 2, 2009.

[vii] “Violence to Prevent Observers from Widely Monitoring Polls – Afghan Expert,” BBC, July 21, 2009.

[viii] The Independent Election Commission (IEC) is a constitutional body appointed by the president to oversee polls. It is tasked with registering voters, running polling stations, and issuing election results.  The IEC is accountable to the Afghan parliament and population.  Members of the IEC are selected by the president, which has cast doubt on the commission’s independence.  On the other hand, the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) is an independent panel that reports any findings of fraud to the Independent Election Committee (IEC), which under law must accept Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) findings.  It was established under Article 52 of the Afghan Electoral Law to investigate and oversee all challenges and complaints associated to the electoral process.  If an offense is found to have taken place, it has the right, under Article 54, to impose sanctions. The ECC can also review disputes regarding the eligibility of nominated candidates.  It is made up of two national commissioners and three international commissioners.  The Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission and the Supreme Court of Afghanistan each select one commissioner; the Special Representative of the Secretary-General of the United Nations appoints the final three commissioners. The provincial embodiment of the ECC is the Provincial Electoral Complaints Commission, set up in each of the provinces and composed of three Commissioners and one support officer.  During the 2005 and 2009 elections, the ECC required that at least one Afghan commissioner had voluntarily agreed with any finding in order to prevent the three international commissioners from abusing their majority to override the two Afghan commissioners.

[ix] “Karzai ‘Stripped of Outright Win’,” BBC, October 19, 2009.

[x] “The Situation in Afghanistan and its Implications for International Peace and Security,” Report to the Secretary-General, A/64/613-S/2009/674, United Nations General Assembly Security Council, December 28, 2009.

[xi] Thomas H. Johnson, “Afghanistan’s Post-Taliban Transition: The State of State-Building After War,” Central Asian Survey, Vol. 25 No. 1-2, (March-June 2006), pgs. 14-15.

[xii] Hamid Karzai, speech to first session of Afghanistan’s Parliament, February 20, 2010.

[xiii] See Appendix B for how the seats are distributed for both the 2005 and 2010 Wolesi Jirga elections.  The number of seats allocated is based on the total population. This is shown in Appendix C in a simple linear regression analysis of number of seats to total population.  The number of seats each province can have is important if true representational government is to be established.  In the case of Afghanistan the guidelines for this process have been established in Article 20 in Chapter 5 of the Electoral Law.  The law regulates the number of seats to each province is to be in proportion to the population size. Additionally the minimum number of seats for each province has been set at two seats.  If this occurs the remaining provinces in which extra seats were not allocated to shall divide the remaining seats proportionally based on population size. (Legal Frame Work: Laws and Decrees:Electoral Law, 2010).

[xiv] Astri Surhke suggests: “The Parliament was … weakened by an election law that introduced a curious and rarely used system designed to inhibit political party representation (the Single, Non-transferable Vote system, or SNTV)”. Astri Surhke, “Electing to Fight in Afghanistan,” Middle East Institute, April, 2012, .

[xv] Mohaqiq received 13.2% of the vote in 2005 when he was the leading vote getter for the Kabul Wolesi Jirga positions.

[xvi] International Crisis Group, Afghanistan’s Elections Stalemate: Update Briefing,” op. cit., pg. 1.

[xvii] Afghan Wolesi Jirga elections were scheduled to be held on October 15, 2016; they were postponed, in part, because the lack of resolution concerning the reform of Afghanistan’s electoral laws. See: Mujib Mashal, “Afghan Panel Sets Election Date, Drawing Government Criticism,” The New York Times, January 18, 2016, .

[xviii] Ibid. pg. 5.

[xix] Ibid. pg. 168.

[xx] For example, see: Thomas H. Johnson, Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict, (London: Hurst Publisher and Oxford University Press, September, 2017).

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


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


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


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.