Afghanistan’s long-delayed parliamentary elections, scheduled to take place later this week, have attracted little international interest, but could ultimately determine how much the international community’s military and diplomatic efforts can or cannot achieve in the future. Elections marred by fraud and violence could threaten to divide or even collapse the current government. This will greatly complicate any attempts at further peace talks and lead the Trump administration to decide whether to withdraw or reinforce order by sending more troops. At the same time, smooth elections could help bring in a new generation of younger politicians, battle against corruption, and encourage democratization.
In part, the October 20th polls matter because they are a prelude to the presidential elections slated for next year. Already members of the ruling elite are positioning themselves behind potential candidates, threatening the uneasy truce between the groups that compose the National Unity Government. This year’s parliamentary vote threatens to upend this coalition, if the process does not go smoothly.
The entire election process embodies several of the deep conflicts that undermine stability in Afghanistan: While parliament itself has limited power, parliamentary positions provide access to both government and international funds. The majority of parliamentarians who have all held power since at least 2011, have enriched themselves by building their patronage networks in exchange for access to the government. This means there is a fierce struggle to retain seats. There are rampant rumors of candidates spending millions on campaigns, pointing to the amount of income they can expect to generate if they are successful.
At the same time, the Taliban and other groups have deliberately targeted previous rounds of voting. For opponents of the government, they see undermining elections as a useful means of proving the weakness of the government and its waning international support. There have been attacks on both individual candidates and campaign gatherings.
One of the successes of the past 17 years has been to entrench the idea of elections as the key to political transitions in Afghanistan. This fragile step toward democratization and the idea that the government can be held accountable to the people could be undermined by a failed or deeply contested voting process. The progress in recent weeks of talks between the Taliban and U.S. representatives will be deeply compromised if a legitimate Afghan government is not seen as a part of the negotiation process.
Despite this, there are far fewer international monitors providing oversight and international troops providing security than in recent rounds of voting in 2009, 2010, and 2014 and there are signs that these elections could be even more destabilizing than earlier waves. To stem the violence, the Afghan government has announced that 54,000 security forces will be deployed to protect the polls. Even with these forces, already 2,000 polling stations have been deemed too risky to open, and at least seven parliamentary candidates have been killed.
To combat fraud, biometric devices are being sent to polling stations around the country, but Afghan politicians have raised concerns about their reliability, and there’s a possibility that these devices could undermine the legitimacy of the elections if they are seen as being manipulated and corrupted. In previous elections, rumors about the fallibility of the ink used to mark the fingers of voters led to an increase in conspiracies about fraud.
Even before the voting there is evidence to suggest the process has been corrupted. For example, the number of voters registered in some provinces is higher than the actual number of people believed to be living there.
Public confidence in the government and the Independent Election Commission is already low. District elections, mandated in the constitution but never held, were dropped by the Commission over the summer, as were elections in the contested province of Ghazni. This suggests to many Afghans that the commission may not be equipped to manage either the logistics or the political pressure that will come with this vote.
Other indicators are more positive and there has been a large amount of interest and mobilization around a series of younger parliamentary candidates. Many of these candidates, who have been educated and come of age in the years since the U.S. invasion in 2001, represent a genuine alternative from the generation of Afghan leaders who earned their reputations during the war against the Soviets and the ensuing civil war that tore the country apart.
The issue is that even if young incumbents are elected to replace this older generation, there is little to suggest that the outgoing members of parliament will go quietly. In the 2014 election, supporters of both current President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah dismissed the vote as corrupted. When the threats of violence became more serious, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry stepped in to negotiate a truce between the two sides. With 250 seats up for grabs, negotiating between various interest groups, commanders and political parties will be far more challenging.
With Erik Prince, former Blackwater head recently in Kabul shopping around a plan to privatize the war in Afghanistan, an inconclusive, chaotic election may be just the excuse the Trump administration needs to withdraw from Afghanistan. On the other hand, political and diplomatic support for the elections could help stabilize the government and pave the way for a democratic presidential transition next year. This could further facilitate peace talks with the Taliban and other insurgent groups.
Transparent democracy in Afghanistan is the most likely way to provide the long-term stability that would allow the international community to eventually withdraw from Afghanistan. A failure to provide diplomatic support for democracy in the coming weeks could mean the type of political turmoil that could push the country toward increased chaos and, in the long run, demand even more international troops and funds.
Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College. He is author, with Anna Larson, of “Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan: Elections in an Unstable Political Landscape” (Columbia 2014) and more recently “Under Contract: The Invisible Workers of America’s Global Wars” (Stanford 2018).