Legitimacy and the Afghan Elections
August 18, 2009
Far too much Western attention already focuses on the “mechanics” of the Afghan election as the standard of legitimacy. Afghanistan is being judged by how much of the population can and will vote, whether the voting will be one live voter at a time, and whether the count will be accurate. “Mechanics” are important. Afghans need to perceive a country secure enough so most voters feel it is safe to vote. The count needs to be honest. There needs to be a sharp and visible contrast to what happened to the vote in Iran.
At the same time, the realities of Afghanistan are very different from those of Western democracies holding elections in peacetime. The nation is at war and UN maps show that the Taliban and other Jihadists pose a threat in roughly 40% of the country. No election can be perfect under these conditions, and the test of success has to be relative. The issue will be how many Afghans vote in secure areas and how many vote in threatened areas. The Taliban and other movements have formally opposed the election, and the question is how successful this opposition actually will be. It will be what voting patterns show about the relative influence of the government and NATO/ISAF versus the Jihadists – not whether everyone can vote everywhere – which is an impossible standard in the south and other parts of the country.
There will also be serious legitimacy questions no matter how honest the actual voting process and count happen to be. First, Afghanistan is just beginning to develop meaningful political parties in a country that is still highly illiterate and where much of the voting population may still vote largely on the basis of tribe, ethnicity, sect, and local tensions and history. The choice is between national candidates where many Afghans will have to choose between voting for traditional allegiances and voting against Karzai and his government because of years of corruption, a failure to deliver services and security, and resentment of a central government that has concentrated more on its own privileges than the people.
This kind of vote is not functional democracy by Western standards. The choice between traditional loyalties and anger is scarcely the kind of choice that is likely to result in effective democratic government. The actual choice Afghan voters make between voting and personal security, however, will say much about just how much control the Jihadists actually have in any given area – particularly in Pashtun-dominated areas. That part of the count will be extremely important.
Second, the election already is highly illegitimate and rigged, and will remain so regardless of the honesty of the voting process and the actual count. Karzai has spent months trying to exploit traditional ties and allegiances by buying bloc votes from ex-warlords, local leaders, and power brokers. The joke is that he has promised governorships to three times more such leaders than there are provinces. The reality is that Karzai’s top running mates are the equivalent of warlords, and he had done everything possible to buy the election long before the vote will actually occur. As a result, the real question is how many Afghan voters will actually stay bought when they go to the polls. A major vote against traditional leaders will be a vote against corruption and misgovernment. It will send a powerful message – particularly if it leads to a run off.
Third, Afghan perceptions of the results of the vote will be far more important than outside efforts to observe the election and determine whether it will be honest by Western standards. If Afghans feel the election was legitimate by their standards, it will be a sign of major progress regardless of how outsiders judge the mechanics. If they divide in anger along ethnic or sectarian lines, and if the end result is more divisive than unifying, the election will be a failure. It will inevitably mean they see the government as distant, corrupt, and ineffective, and that the election has empowered the Jihadists. As a result, the way any runoff is handled, or how Afghans react in the aftermath of a direct Karzai reelection, will be far more important than the mechanics of the count.
Fourth, the election cannot make up for the failed, overcentralized structure of Afghan governance that was imposed on the country from the outside. In the real world, the legitimacy of any government is determined by how well it governs and serves the people and not how it is chosen. As Winston Churchill pointed out, democracy can easily become just another way of selecting bad or ineffective governments.
No one doubts that any future Karzai government will still be tied to corruption, favoritism, and power brokers – with ties to organized crime, narcotics trafficking, and officials who sometimes have links to the Taliban. If Abdullah should win, a man who has never governed or administered any significant body will take over.
Just as would be the case with Karzai, Abdullah will then be faced with ministries that lack capacity, are corrupt, that do not serve most Afghans outside Kabul with any competence, and that will still control virtually all state funds. Regardless of who is elected, there will still be no elected provincial governors or district leaders that actually represent the people, and these officials will still be dependent on Kabul for all their power and money. There will be no meaningful government services in far too many areas. There will be no Afghan source of security. Instead, there will be a corrupt and ineffective police, no courts, and no jails. The Taliban and other Jihadist movements will still be able to exploit a near power vacuum in many rural parts of the country, and the central government’s failures in a good part of the rest.
This lack of basic governance and capacity – regardless of who is elected -- is the key challenge to NATO/ISAF, the US, and the rest of the outside world. Afghanistan needs elected provincial and district leaders and legislative bodies, not a failed and corrupt overcentralized structure. Changing this in wartime requires extensive outside civil and military influence and aid to change the structure of governance, not to supervise and secure an election. It requires aid in building up effective central government ministries. It requires a major anti-corruption drive and the careful allocation of aid so it only goes to honest officials for projects Afghans actually need and want.
It means an active effort by NATO/ISAF and the various Provincial Reconstruction Teams to help develop governance at the local level, reform the police, and find a way to combine the formal and traditional justice systems to give Afghans prompt justice. This requires at least half a decade more aid even in the areas that are relatively secure, and the correction of critical Western mistakes in helping the Afghans create their present structure of government. No outcome of the coming election can conceivably substitute for such sustained help and effort.
At a war fighting level, it also means that the new NATO/ISAF strategy of shape, clear, hold, and build requires direct civil-military efforts in the field in every secure and newly secured area to compensate for the corruption and incapacity of the central government, regardless of who is elected. NATO/ISAF support and international aid must only go to relatively honest and effective ministerial, provincial, and district, officials.
In many cases, however, NATO/ISAF and international aid organizations will have to work around the central and provincial governments where they fail or are corrupt, and build capacity and services at the district and local levels. NATO/ISAF will have to work directly with local leaders to provide aid, jobs, and security. NATO/ISAF will have to work directly to support honest police work and force out corrupt police, officials, and justice efforts.
For at least the next three years, and probably the next five, building Afghan government capacity at every level will be absolutely vital. It will be far more important to make the civil side of “hold” and “build” work - and create an integrated civil-military approach to providing security in the field - than to assume that this national election can solve a single key problem.