The Pulse

The Dangers in Afghanistan’s Political Deal

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The Pulse

The Dangers in Afghanistan’s Political Deal

Afghanistan’s new unity government undermines its democratic institutions.

Afghanistan is about to make a tryst with destiny. For the first time in its history, the war-torn country will see a transfer of power between two governments without bloodshed. With the signing of a power sharing deal between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan has avoided bloodshed. Thus opens a new chapter in the history of Afghanistan.

The power sharing deal represents a novel experiment in governance in Afghanistan. The U.S.-brokered deal allows Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai to become the new president of Afghanistan while the defeated candidate, Abdullah Abdullah, will be appointed the country’s chief executive. This will allow for a coalition government consisting of multiple ethnic groups at a time when international forces are preparing to withdraw from the country. The deal thus comes as a relief for the people of Afghanistan, who were getting frustrated with their country’s protracted political uncertainty.

Although the new arrangement has resolved Afghanistan’s political crisis for the time being, it has also undercut democracy. It is an attempt to change the constitutional arrangements of Afghanistan. The backroom deal is a huge disappointment for those who came out in large numbers, often at the risk of their own lives, to participate in the democratic process.

“If they wanted to establish a national unity government, why did they take six months’ time? Why did people vote and lose their fingers? What is the meaning of elections in the country?” asks Noor Agha, a business manager in Kabul. The deal will cause people to question democracy in Afghanistan. Will people trust the democratic process again in five years when the country holds its next presidential elections?

I was a witness to the first round of elections in Afghanistan this April. It was bliss to see the enthusiasm of the people and their determination to change the fate of their nation through the ballot box. They defied the Taliban and came out to vote. However, the slow resolution of the crisis that followed the election has led to a feeling of resignation rather than enthusiasm in Afghanistan. “They took a long time in coming to the agreement and lots of bitterness has seeped into both of the camps. Both candidates represent strong coalitions and it has to be seen whether the new government works for the country or for strengthening their constituencies,” says Haroon Mir, a Kabul based political analyst.

However, not all Afghans are so glum. “It is a relief that a new government is going to be formed. I hope they will work for the country and solve our problems. It is better than constant uncertainty,” says Amir Akbari, a Kabul based journalist.

Nonetheless, I believe that democracy demands an opposition. The unity government undercuts the basic premise of democracy. The new political arrangement allows the Taliban to virtually become the sole opposition in Afghanistan. The Taliban will use the unity deal between Afghanistan’s two presidential candidates to attack the system yet again. The Taliban will be able to argue that the unity government in Afghanistan came about through American negotiations, and is thus not representative of Afghanistan’s interests. The success of the elections undermined the Taliban’s credibility but any failure of Afghanistan’s new government will strengthen their hand.

Afghanistan’s new government may or may not be workable. How its rival figures will share power and reconcile their ambitions will decide the future of the government. Ghani and Abdullah seemed cold to each other during the signing of the agreement last Sunday, demonstrating tension in their alliance. There is no clarity on how the two candidates will share power. This is troublesome. If the unity government fails, it will seriously undermine Afghanistan’s democracy, which has already been undermined to permit such a government in the first place.

So why did the United States precipitate a unity government at the cost of strict adherence to the established procedures for a democratic transition in Afghanistan? Perhaps the United States believed that quickly establishing a stable government would prevent the Taliban from taking advantage of the situation. However, the new political arrangement in Kabul raises the question of legitimacy. How representative and legitimate is a government which is a byproduct of a deal brokered by America? The United States ought to have used its influence to bring greater transparency to Afghanistan’s vote counting process. The very fact that Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission has not officially released the results of the election brings into question the legitimacy of the whole electoral process.

The new government’s challenge will not only be to sustain the aspirations of the new Afghanistan but also to strengthen democratic institutions and win back the trust of the people. Afghanistan teeters on the brink of both hope and disaster.