If democracy means a government formed by open and fair participation of citizens, it clearly failed in Afghanistan. Many experts and Afghan officials may argue against it. However, after huge human and financial investments in the last 13 years, the Afghan government and its Western supporters failed to conduct at least a transparent and fair election that could produce a widely accepted and legitimate government.
For many Afghans, the April 5th presidential election was a day of pride. Citizens stood in long lines in the hope of making a change, however small, in their history. The hope did not last after massive election fraud and irregularities were reported. The Taliban and Afghan government’s political and military foes had long boycotted the election and warned the people against their participation in this important political process. But Afghans remained undeterred in their resolve for change.
Had the election gone smoothly and in adherence to the accepted democratic norms, Afghanistan would, for the first time, have witnessed many “exceptions” in its bloody and turbulent political history. For the first time, the country would have seen an outgoing president “shake hands” with his successor and transform his constitutional power because of the public decision and constitutional requirement. For the citizens of institutionalized democracy, this may seem a trivial change, but in Afghanistan it could mean the beginning of a history. To prove this exception, let’s check the fate of Afghanistan’s previous rulers in chronological order in the last four decades.
Afghanistan’s last king—named the father of the nation in 2001—was Zahir Shah. He ruled Afghanistan for 40 years until his cousin, Mohammad Daud Khan, stripped him from power in July 1973 when he was in Italy for vacation and medical treatment. Shah lived in exile for 29 years. Then there was Daud Khan, the first president of Afghanistan. He was brutally killed with members of his family in the presidential palace in 1978 in bloody coup led by pro-Soviet Union forces. The remains of his body were discovered in 2009 and buried in a state funeral. The first Soviet Union-backed president, Nur Mohammad Taraki, was imprisoned and “tied down and suffocated by a pillow” in 1979 by his prime minister, Hafizullah Amin. Amin was killed in a mysterious environment by KGB.
The last communist-era president, Dr. Najibullah, whom many Afghans consider a perfect model of Afghan nationalism and patriotism, was hanged by the Taliban in 1996 right at the entrance gate of the current presidential palace. Finally, Afghanistan’s Mujahedeen President Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated in 2011 in his highly protected house in the daylight by a Taliban member who had hidden an explosive device in his turban and entered Rabbani’s house to negotiate with him about the peace process. Although Rabbani’s assassination was not linked to his role as a former president, his refusal to hand over power after the completion of his mandate was a principle force of chaos and factional war.
This short historical review can guide us through Afghanistan’s troubling political experience. The current presidential election is already recorded as the longest political experiment without producing a clear result and, of course, a winning party. Both leading candidates in the recent election, Dr. Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Bank executive and finance minister, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, a former opposition leader and foreign minister, accuse each other’s campaign teams and supporters of orchestrated and widely organized electoral frauds.
A day after the announcement of the preliminary results for the second round of voting, which was held on July 14, 2014, Dr. Abdullah’s supporters rejected the election’s results that placed him as second after Ashraft Ghani. His supporters persistently called for the formation of a parallel government in areas and provinces that the team scored majority. The idea of a parallel government was put off the table after U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry travelled to Kabul to broker a political deal on auditing votes and forming a unity government once the auditing task is completed. As of now, there are serious debates about the recounting mechanism and defining the unity government and the role of the losing candidate in Afghanistan’s future political arrangement.
The whole election uproar in Afghanistan sends some clear messages to all parties involved in the post-Taliban state-building in this landlocked and politically divided country. First and foremost, the democratic experiment is failing in Afghanistan. Unlike what Afghans and their strategic friends in the U.S. and NATO member states expected, it is not Afghan people’s votes that make change and send a legitimately elected president to the presidential palace. Instead, the fate of Afghanistan will be decided either on the streets or in a serious and internationally brokered political deal.
Second, the ongoing discussion on the formation of a unity government is not a long-term solution to Afghanistan’s Political situation. Both disputing camps have already begun hostile debates about the role and discretion of a “Chief Executive Officer” that will be created if the national unity government is formed. The experience in the last 13 years suggests that a coalition government based on short-term political expediency will not succeed in Afghanistan. A major portion of President Karzai’s failure to eradicate corruption and introduce good governance is attributed to his leniency and soft position toward political elites, influential leaders and local patronages. If the same arrangement is made for another five years, Afghanistan will definitely sacrifice government effectiveness at the cost of keeping all parties appeased.
Finally, the formation of a politically brokered national unity government without a thorough investigation of election fraud and legal adjudication of the corrupt electoral officials or accusers can seriously hurt public trust and consequently create an unfortunate precedent for future elections. Clearly, if the losing party is included in the government anyway, the election will be meaningless. If Afghanistan is to be ruled by a coalition of leaders widely divided on political, regional and ethnic interests, the U.S. and NATO’s already planned military withdrawal by the end of 2014 will be difficult. In this case, the U.S. should keep necessary troops and political advisors in Afghanistan to closely monitor the day-to-day operations of the unity government and encourage its difficult members to exercise their power within the constitutional limitations.