When, Nadir Khan, the father of Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan and Father of the Nation, decided to draft a constitution for his absolute monarchy, the sycophants in his court opposed the idea. They advised him that while his majesty king was alive Afghanistan did not need constitution. They said that the will of the king is law for each and every subject. But Nadir Khan did not act upon the advice of his courtiers. He said that Afghanistan needed a constitution since all the countries around it had one. The idea was not to define the relationship of the citizens with the state and outline their rights and obligations. Instead the exercise was intended to maintain the reputation of the monarchy.
All his successors showed the same attitude. They tried every type of system, from constitutional monarchy, to presidential republic, one party soviet style state and the Islamic Emirate led by Mullah Omar the so called Amir-ul-Mominin (The lord of the faithful).
What was common to all those regimes was the denial of the basic rights of the citizens. Afghans experienced tyranny, brutality and all types of discrimination. But law protected the tyrants and their tribal and ideological interests. The rulers instead of taking responsibility to serve the people claimed power as a God given right.
The hope in the post-Taliban era was that the Afghan ruling elite would benefit from the presence of the world community and lead Afghanistan on the path of progress and prosperity with a real working democracy. After more than a decade, with the international mission in its final stages, Afghans wonder what happened to the dream of a better life and civilized values.
Officially, there have been many elections in Afghan political history. But the elections to the country’s thirteen pre-war parliaments were limited exercises and grossly manipulated. Afghans expected that the presence of the international community after 2001 would ensure that elections adhered to democratic norms. But after three presidential elections and two parliament elections the fate of representative democracy still hangs in the balance.
The official script for the Afghan presidential poll held on April 05, 2014 is that it heralds a harmonious transfer of power based on the popular will, a great act of Afghan democracy. The international community has helped to put in place lots of technical fixes to prevent the repetition of the manipulation seen in 2004 (when the international community signed off on the pro-incumbent weighting of the process) and that in 2009 (when the Afghan elite’s home grown fixers organized the ballot-stuffing). The massive turn out of real Afghans shows they trusted the promises of a better election. Barcoded ballots are to stop Afghan riggers. Anxious Afghans are watching the fate of the election to see if the elite can stomach a popular mandate.
Some lessons learnt in the Afghan democratic experiment
1. Power addiction- Once in power, Afghan rulers are very reluctant to step down. The incumbent president is tempted to follow the path of his predecessors, who once in power tried to remain for the rest of their lives. Afghans reading the body language of President Karzai in the run up to the elections concluded that he was in no to step. In spite of continuous assurances by the president, the doubt still exists that he might not be sincere in really transferring power. Instead of strengthening institutions, president Karzai tried to rule as a tribal leader. He did not form a political party to promote ideas and policies. Indeed he never allowed political parties to flourish. Of course, he sought the help of political parties on certain occasions. But he never seriously involved in the power game. His main guiding principle for a decade of government has been “divide and rule”. He happily manipulated the political parties and encouraged their fragmentation over time. His addiction to power has seriously damaged the political institutions.
Lesson learnt- In spite of the whole hearted support of the international community for a democratic Afghanistan, the Afghan ruling elite failed to embrace the true spirit of democracy. On the contrary, they prefer the tribal way of rule rather than representative democracy. They have yet to prove that they respect the will of the people to choose their leader, in case this will contradicts elite notions of the divine right of one community to rule over Afghanistan.
2. Structural Flaws- After the fall of Taliban and the November 21, 2001 “Bonn Conference”, the international community led by the US installed a team to rule Afghanistan and trusted them to play by the rules. The international community hoped that Afghan technocrats would pioneer modernization and democratization. But leading technocrats cut a deal with the new elite in the palace. They undertook limited institution building as a smokescreen to distract attention from the real project which was to build patronage networks focused on the presidential palace. They neglected what should have been key elements of the new democratic framework in Afghanistan. The lacunae included:
a. National Census- The Bonn Agreement mentions the conduct of a national census. But over the last 13 years the Afghan government showed no will to complete this important element of the historic agreement. The Afghan government only looked at the political aspects of the issue. Reliable census data would have restricted the government’s scope for discretion and patronage in dealing with different communities. Tens of billions US dollars came and disappeared but the relatively modest amount required was not allocated for a thorough civil registration. Afghans still do not have a biometric ID card which could be used for electoral and many other purposes. At the moment all the available population data is unreliable. No one knows the exact population of any province and ultimately the eligible number of voters for province is unknown. Therefore even the allocation of the seats for the parliament for each province is also a matter of dispute.
b. Electoral Institutions- The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan (IEC) and the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) have yet to prove their credibility. Past experiences show that both the institutions were subject to the whim of the presidential palace and obliged to tamper with the popular will. The latest teams in these institutions have yet to prove whether they stand with people or palace. The unnecessary delay in declaring results raises questions about their commitment to fairly dealing with the votes of people who risked their lives and defiantly chose the ballot over the bullet.
c. Electoral database- In the absence of an authentic Electoral Database no reliable election can be held. At the moment no one knows the exact numbers of voters for any polling center, which is an invitation to rigging. It is almost impossible to supply the correct numbers of ballot papers as well as to monitor the turnout. Tens of thousands of voters could not cast their vote due to local unavailability of ballot papers. This issue has reduced confidence in the process and no one has yet given satisfactory answers to those asking why they were turned away from the polls.
d. Electoral Law- Since 2005 there have been debates on reform of the Electoral Law and the update of the electoral manuals. The serious debate has consistently been blocked. The ruling elite never had a will to bring useful reforms in the Electoral Law. Inadequate laws hamper transparency and reduce confidence in the process. Parliamentary Elections are to be held next year and the clauses of the law dealing with them are even more in need of an overhaul.
Lesson Learnt– Afghanistan still lacks effective election institutions and an adequate legal framework to ensure that elections deliver a truly representative government and legislature. It has been once again proven that without a fair civil registration with biometric data and an authentic Electoral database it is not possible to conduct an election which meets domestic and international standards. The Afghan political elite should transcend their ethnic sentiments and, with the help of international community, should overhaul the Electoral law and manuals and establish a real impartial body to conduct fair and transparent parliamentary and presidential elections.
3. Where the mandate lies? The high turnout in the relatively peaceful areas shows a deep desire of the people for change and gives a resounding “no” to the Taliban life style. The turnout is also a tribute to the political parties and their role in mobilizing people to the polling centers. The partial results show that the majority of the people voted for traditional political parties which are mostly ethnic in nature. The main contender Dr. Abdullah Abdullah was the unanimous candidate of a coalition of political parties, mainly Jamiat-e Islami (JI) led by Salahuddin Rabbani (Tajik), People’s Unity Party of Afghanistan (PUP) led by Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq (Hazara) and a faction of Hizb-e Islami led by Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal (Pashtun). The other important contender Dr. Ashraf Ghani was mainly supported by the Junbish Party led by Gen. Dostum (Uzbek), a faction of Wahdat party led by Mohammad Karim Khalili, Afghan Millat led by Anwarulhaq Ahadi (Pashtun) and Right and Justice Party led Hanif Atmar (Pashtun). Jamiat-e Islami and People’s Unity Party of Afghanistan achieved an extraordinary performance in favor of Dr. Abdullah Abdullah while Junbish Party was successful in its mobilization in favor of Dr. Ashraf Ghani.
Lesson learnt- The aforementioned parties representing the Tajiks, Hazaras and the Uzbeks seem to have proven that they enjoy the mandate of their respective communities. Around 80% of the Tajiks and 70% of Hazaras voted for Dr. Abdullah Abdullah while approximately 70% of the Uzbeks voted for Dr. Ashraf Ghani. Sahuddin Rabbani, Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq and Gen. Dostum, who swept the votes of their constituencies in favor of their candidates, have proven themselves to be the trusted addresses of their respected communities. They thus have strong potential to play an important role in future development of Afghanistan. It would be wise if the Afghan political elite and the international community take note of this mandate and properly utilize their capacity for a better future of Afghanistan.
The writer is the Chief Editor of the daily Outlook Afghanistan. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org