Post-Election Afghanistan to Repeat History?


The outcome of Afghanistan’s presidential election remains in the balance, with no clear winner. The losing candidates from the first round, Zalmai Rassoul and Gul Agha Sherzai have declared their support for Abdullah Abdullah, while the pro-Palace Hizb-e-Islami elites have joined Ashraf Ghani’s camp for the run-off, slated for June 14. Will that final ballot alone have the authority to choose a president, or will the Bonn Agreement once again come into play?

When it comes to questions of power, Afghanistan has a unique history of oppression and accommodation. Following its inception as a political identity in 1747, Afghanistan had 28 monarchs, only six of whom died natural deaths. The violence with which power was often seized stymied the development of the constituents of modern governance, such as a national interest or a national identity. Even the very concept of nationhood remains weak in Afghanistan.

This history also paved the way for the rise of ethno-regional players, who see their interests best served through ethnic politics and the dynamics of power networking and power brokerage. The formation and consolidation of national identity has always been superseded by competing local-tribal-ethnic identities. Without a mechanism to convert conflicting individual preferences into collective decision-making, Afghanistan has been fertile ground for identity politics reliant on deal-making.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

Thus it is that in these elections, the losing candidates and their powerbroker clientele seem to be repositioning themselves and striking deals with the candidate they see as having the better chance in any run-off.

In this context, the Bonn Agreement gains in relevance as a seemingly useful prescription for this brand of Afghan politics. As a political settlement, the Bonn Agreement sought to restore peace, rejuvenate failed state institutions, repair inter-communal relationships, and provide a framework to accommodate the disorderly elites. Given the volume and voracity of animosity that determined the relationships amongst the quarrelsome groups prior to 2001, the deal was hailed as a major success – providing an institutional framework with an unprecedented dimension and degree of inclusiveness only rarely before experienced in Afghanistan’s politics, and laying the groundwork for institutions that were uniquely diverse.

The Bonn Agreement represented a significant shift in the balance of power. The Taliban were driven from their bases and the mujahedeen factions – which had been largely vanquished by the Taliban –once again had a shot at power, either replacing or taking on their old rivals.

What the agreement did not do was bring real change to the monopolization and consolidation of power in Afghanistan. The deal was designed to please all sides, rather than pacifying political parties or fundamentally changing the nature of their power. As such, it merely produced a repositioning and rearranging of political elites, possible only because of the pressure applied by an international community that was trying to match politics with the changing reality on the ground.

Institutionalizing this political arrangement in a conflict-ridden society, with most of its social fabric and economic and political infrastructures in tatters, came at the price of deepening ethno-political cleavages and dividing the country still further along ethnic lines. The Bonn Agreement, in the larger atmosphere created by ethnic conflict, made Afghanistan a hotbed for ethno-regional rivalry and competition that determined the politics of state and institution building in the years that followed.

In societies where civic engagement is weak and elites bolster their positions through identity manipulation, elections are often opportunities to exploit the masses into voting along ethnic lines, even when that is to their detriment. In a country like Afghanistan, with little sense of nationhood, voters see their interests through the ethnic prism and so are hardly likely to vote for someone with a different ethnic identity. This gives power brokers more authority to make deals – indeed deal-making becomes an essential stabilizing factor.

The 2004, 2009, and 2014 presidential elections are classic examples of how patron-client relationships facilitate deal-making. The 2004 results showed how easily power brokers could manipulate the deep societal fractures along ethno-regional affiliations and loyalties. There were four major contenders – the incumbent President Hamid Karzai, Younis Qanooni, Mohammad Mohaqqiq, and General Rashid Dostum – representing the Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, respectively. Forming a government inclusive of all ethnic groups in a country with a mosaic ethnic composition, with institutions and platforms encouraging ethnic competition, is a daunting task. The results illustrated staggering ethnic cleavages: Karzai won 95.9 percent of the votes in overwhelmingly Pashtun Paktia province, Younis Qanooni received 90 percent of the votes in his hometown of Panjsher, while Mohammad Mohaqqiq, and General Dostum won 83 percent and 78 percent in their respective home provinces.

The results of the 2009 election showed no real change. Karzai dominated in the mainly Pashtun provinces of Kandahar, Laghman, and Paktya, with 88 percent, 80 percent and 82.2 percent, respectively. Abdullah Abdullah, who finished second, collected 69.9 percent of the total votes in Pansher and finished first in Balkh, two mainly Tajik areas.

These same voting patterns held true for the election this year, despites claims that ethno-regional leaders and networked elites are losing ground. For instance, the Pashtun frontrunner, Ashraf Ghani, received 74.47 percent of the total votes cast in Khost, with Abdullah receiving just 3.57 percent. In the province of Panjsher, however, Abdullah won 87.31 percent, while Ghani  ended with a mere 0.39 percent. Abdullah also attracted 67.75 and 78.08 percent of the votes in the two Hazara-dominated provinces of Bamyan and Daikundi, after winning the support of the charismatic Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaqqiq.

Another factor that makes coalition building a very real possibility is the influence wielded by Karzai over the Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan and even candidates, political dealmakers, and power brokers. After 12 years in power, Karzai has mastered his art of playing power brokers against one another, using a carrot-and-stick strategy. The inconclusive election results strengthen his position.

In any case, for Afghanistan there are just two options. First, given the dire economic conditions, fear of possible future political instability, and fierce security threats, a coalition government that facilitates the distribution of power between the two leading candidates may well be a viable option.

Alternatively, and notwithstanding the multifarious challenges, the country could strive to fulfill the popular desire for a democratic transfer of power, and lay the ground for fair and positive political competition in the future.

Arif Sahar specializes in state-institution building in post-2001 Afghanistan. He is currently director of the Centre of Peace and Development Studies in Kabul, and also Senior Advisor to the Ministry of Finance. Follow him on Twitter @ArifSahar2.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief