Afghanistan’s presidential election is scheduled to take place on September 28. In planning the election, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) must overcome a number of practical challenges to avoid repeating the mistakes of the 2018 parliamentary elections—elections that undermined the legitimacy of the state and reduced Afghans’ confidence in democracy as a means for selecting their leaders. Based on a careful analysis of the IEC’s performance during the 2018 elections, this report offers recommendations for creating more resilient electoral institutions in Afghanistan and other postconflict countries.

A worker stacks ballot boxes and election materials in a warehouse in Jalalabad for the October 2018 parliamentary elections. (Parwiz Parwiz/Reuters)
A worker stacks ballot boxes and election materials in a warehouse in Jalalabad for the October 2018 parliamentary elections. (Parwiz Parwiz/Reuters)

Summary

  • The decision to base Afghanistan’s future political order on democracy required the creation of institutions to oversee elections. The international community devoted significant resources to set up and maintain the Independent Election Commission (IEC), both because the institution was required to organize elections in the post-Taliban era and to serve as an example that independent institutions could thrive in Afghanistan.
  • Political modernization, on which Afghanistan’s postconflict transition is predicated, requires the creation of impartial institutions that can transcend more primal loyalties. These institutions depend on the rationalization of authority and the specialization of tasks, and they require behavioral changes from political actors.
  • The October 2018 parliamentary elections demonstrated a failure of institutionalization with regard to the IEC. In its efforts to organize and oversee the elections, the IEC was unable to exhibit any form of resilience to both knowable and unknowable risks.
  • The IEC also failed at the level of planning, of organization, and of crisis response. The dismissal by President Ashraf Ghani of all seven electoral commissioners in February 2019 was a clear sign that international investment in institutional development had not paid off.
  • Other processes, such as the effective organization and holding of elections for Community Development Councils, suggest that the problem is not with the idea of elections or democracy per se, but with the alignment of incentives. If there is an opportunity through a peace process to redesign Afghan institutions, these lessons will need to be taken into account.

About the Report

This report analyzes the performance of Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission during the 2018 parliamentary elections through the lens of both political modernization and organizational resilience theory. Supported by the Asia Center at the United States Institute of Peace, the report examines the implications of the failure of electoral institutions on the larger need for the creation of modern political institutions in Afghanistan.

About the Authors

Staffan Darnolf is a senior fellow at USIP and senior global electoral operations and administration adviser at the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. He has more than twenty-five years of experience as a scholar and practitioner in the field of democratization and electoral processes. Scott S. Smith is a senior expert on Afghanistan at USIP. He was formerly director of political affairs at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan.

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