After Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential election resulted in a six-month stalemate, the brokered conclusion was the current National Unity Government. Three years later, this government, headed by President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah, is still foundering and its legitimacy is in question. Reforms have been minimal and have had little impact on the day-to-day lives of Afghans. The 2015 parliamentary elections have been repeatedly postponed. Drawing on fieldwork and interviews, this report explores the nature of political legitimacy and elections in Afghanistan in the context of instability and economic decline with an eye to the long-term future of democracy in the country.

Summary

  • The contested 2014 Afghan presidential elections, the delayed parliamentary elections originally scheduled for 2015, and the failure to implement real electoral reform thus far in the country suggest serious challenges for electoral democracy and the perceived legitimacy of Afghanistan’s National Unity Government.
  • Research on changes in perceptions of government in three urban Afghan sites points to a widening gap between the public and the ruling government–connected elite, who are considered to have fewer incentives now than during the Karzai regime to support communities with development initiatives, infrastructure projects, or other resources.
  • Community members view the current government and parliament as unresponsive to their needs. Local leaders are now perceived as doing little other than attempting to shore up their own resources and influence.
  • These trends have been exacerbated by the widely held perception that international funds are likely to continue to decrease. The related assumption is that this belief is driving leaders to act quickly to seize what they can but to spend little time on improving governance.
  • Despite this situation, few respondents had any desire to replace elections, implying that an unelected government would be widely considered illegitimate and that elections continue to be the desired and necessary form of government structuring.
  • All this suggests that elections—and parliamentary and provincial council ones in particular—have in some areas across the country added to existing mechanisms of keeping local leaders accountable, even if only in providing a stage for a performance of superficial promises.
  • Holding parliamentary elections—with reforms or otherwise—will not prove a panacea to restoring or establishing downward accountability, however. Instead, government legitimacy is likely to come only through a combination of transformative, top-down electoral reform led by the NUG, public protest, and international diplomatic pressure.

About the Report

This report explores the nature of political legitimacy and elections in Afghanistan—building on previous fieldwork, interviews, and seven years of longitudinal data to demonstrate increasing local frustrations with Afghanistan’s National Unity Government. It continues ongoing research and programming by the United States Institute of Peace on transparent elections and rule of law in Afghanistan.

About the Authors

Anna Larson is a senior teaching fellow in development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, and a research associate at the Centre for Contemporary Central Asia and the Caucasus. Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College and author of Bazaar Politics (2011) and Losing Afghanistan (2016). They have been conducting research on governance, local politics, and elections in Afghanistan since 2005 and are coauthors of Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan (2014).

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