Despite problems with past elections, upcoming elections in Afghanistan can facilitate its political transition, conclude the authors of a new study of Afghan public opinion. But to be helpful, the 2014 elections must include participation of as many key leaders and groups as possible, be tied to broader processes of political change, and symbolize a break with the pre-2001 past.

Summary

  • Afghan voters spoke of earlier rounds of voting in 2004, 2005, 2009, and 2010 as having had a cumulatively negative effect in terms of encouraging officials to be more corrupt, destabilizing local political balances, and resulting in less equitable access to power and resources.
  • Despite these developments, many respondents also described the ideals associated with elections in a positive way and felt that they were a potentially useful means through which to transfer power but had failed to live up to this potential due to manipulation by Afghan leaders and a lack of coherent support by international donors.
  • The understanding of many respondents of what constitutes a “free and fair” election, however, differed in several ways from what might be considered a Western approach to elections.
  • While people did express concern about whether elections were likely to be free and fair and often detailed how elections had not been transparent in the past, most were much more concerned with the uncertainty of the upcoming political transition than they were with the process of the elections themselves. Elections were part of a much broader debate on relations with the Taliban, the drawdown of foreign forces, the breakdown of the tenuous connections between ethnic leaders built by Karzai, and the political and economic effects of the decrease in international aid.
  • Related to this, respondents were generally more anxious about the outcomes of the elections than about the specificities of electoral processes, such as whether the elections would be held according to strict procedural standards.
  • A prevailing concern was that as elections approached, there would be less incentive for national and regional level powerholders to remain allied with the government and stay within the current system. Elections were considered likely to promote political chaos and, potentially, civil war as international troops leave and current coalitions break apart.
  • Respondents implied that the Karzai administration represents both the best and worst aspects of a presidential system—maintaining the ability (albeit personalized) to hold loose coalitions of ethnic and other leaders together but, at the same time, exerting overbearing control with little oversight.
  • Fundamentally, most respondents saw elections as a hazardous hurdle that could encourage renewed competition between groups.
  • These findings suggest that if elections are going to facilitate as opposed to hinder transition, the Afghan government and international community must work to ensure that they are inclusive, symbolic of change from the past, and integral to negotiation processes.
  • Elections will only be perceived as free and fair if there is a significant incentive for a wide range of political actors to continue participating in the political process. There is a need for both Afghan leaders and international diplomats to work to ensure the participation of as many groups and political leaders as possible.
  • The extent to which the election is perceived as a fair competition between political rivals does not contribute to the legitimacy of the government established as much as it represents a symbol of a political order that contrasts with both the tyranny of the Taliban period and the chaos of the 1990s civil war. Despite other concerns about elections, they are still a symbol considered important to many Afghans.
  • Technical reforms will do less to convince individuals that the elections will be free and fair than will continued negotiations between the Karzai government, moderate members of the Taliban, various allies of the current government, and the international community. Elections must form part of these negotiations by providing a means for different groups to express their collective interests. Long-term reforms to the system are needed, but these should be a part of an international assistance program that reaches well beyond the drawdown of troops.

About the Authors

Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College. Anna Larson is a PhD candidate in postwar recovery at the University of York. They have been conducting research on politics, democratization, violence, and elections in Afghanistan since 2005. Their book Derailing Democracy: Elections and the Reshaping of the Afghan Political Landscape is forthcoming from Columbia University Press.

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