Perhaps it’s because we like to reinforce our own prejudices with positive reaffirmations or perhaps it’s because the media does not know how to tell a complex story simply, but the weekend’s presidential election in Afghanistan was not the democratic triumph we have been led to believe. Yes, they were elections, but this was somewhat short of “two turnover test” that has been incorrectly applied to the notion of “democratic consolidation”.
The most positive news to come from the elections was that there was relatively little violence on the part of the Taliban. This meant that most voters who wanted to participate could do so.
Indications are that the voter turnout was in excess of 50%, which might look good set against the United States’ own abysmal electoral participation but falls well short of the enthusiastic 80%-plus registered in other new democracies. There has also been much celebration of the fact that around a third of the voters were women, which otherwise indicates how poor the status of women is in this still deeply traditionalist country.
Of the 11 presidential candidates, none was expected to come out as a clear winner with 50%-plus of the vote, meaning the elections would go to a run-off between the two leading candidates. Abdullah Abdullah appeared to be the candidate most favoured by the West, in part because he is a known figure, having run against Hamid Karzai in the 2009 elections, and in part because he is photogenic and speaks English well.
However, unlike 2009, the half-ethnic Pashtun-half Tajik Abdullah was not a frontrunner this time around. The winner is expected to be a full-blooded Pashtun, which while not of an absolute majority in their own right is still Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group.
Of the two leading candidates, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai is an American-educated academic and former finance minister who spent much of his adult life outside Afghanistan. He appears competent and the least corrupt of the leading candidates. The other lead candidate is Zalmay Rassoul, who is backed by outgoing Hamid Karzai, and may be implicated in some of the allegations of profound corruption that have swirled around the Karzai camp.
Other candidates include religious figures, some close to the Taliban and a smattering of warlords. It will be several days, perhaps weeks, before it is known, however, who will head into the run-off.
Early reports suggest that the 2014 elections were not as compromised as the 2009 elections, in part because there were very few election observers left in the field to actually monitor the elections. Even so, there have still been numerous reports of irregularities and a lack of ballot papers in some areas, notably where Abdullah has the strongest support.
The run-off election, with massive opportunities for patronage available to the winner, is likely to see more serious electoral fraud. If reports continue to say that the situation has improved since 2009, that perhaps less reflects that the electoral process is a good one and more that the 2009 elections were, according to all of the electoral observers there then, the most corrupt and compromised in the history of election observation.
A large part of the Afghanistan political equation, though, is the Taliban, which conformed to an increasing political type by not disrupting election day itself. They know this is not the main game.
As the international presence in Afghanistan winds down, both in military and aid terms, no matter who is elected as the new president, they will have to negotiate directly with the Taliban. And the Taliban has shown that any such negotiations will, increasingly, be on their terms.
Afghanistan has had elections, which is positive, even if the process only partially fulfilled the criteria for being truly democratic. However, any suggestion that the “two turnover test” means anything more than forestalling the inevitable is to reflect a poor appreciation of Afghanistan’s conflicted history or fractured political dynamics.
*Professor Damien Kingsbury is director of the Centre for Citizenship, Development and Human Rights at Deakin University