Sunday, November 08, 2009

Afghanistan's local elections: a measure of success

That's the conclusion of a 30-page report (Voting Together by Noah Coburn and Anna Larson) for the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, which describes itself thus:
AREU is an independent research organisation based in Kabul. AREU’s mission is to conduct high-quality research that informs and influences policy and practice. AREU also actively promotes a culture of research and learning by strengthening analytical capacity in Afghanistan and facilitating reflection and debate.
Here's the key passage, I think:

There has been intense criticism of the August 2009 elections by international and Afghan commentators alike. But were they actually a failure? Most estimates are that around US$300 million was spent carrying out these elections in a “free and fair” manner. During campaigning and on election day, thousands of monitors came to the polls and four provincial council candidates lost their lives. Despite this, this research shows that Afghans have amalgamated existing structures of political activity with the newly-introduced SNTV system to create a hybrid, nontransparent and often fraudulent electoral system.

Yet at the same time, the primary purpose of elections is to renegotiate power between key political groups in a non-violent manner. Some power has exchanged hands in these elections, with certain winners, such as the Hazara, gaining some power in the provincial council in the study area and through presidential bargaining, and losers, most notably the Panjshiri Tajiks, losing some power in both of these areas. This transition has remained relatively free of violence thus far, particularly considering the fact that Afghanistan is still a country at war, with over 80,000 international troops currently in the country, and is experiencing the most intense fighting since the collapse of the Taliban government in 2001. During the election all major political groups engaged in the process of negotiating the structure of the Afghan government, even if not in a typical Western way envisioned by the international community. On a local level this study demonstrates that elders, commanders, religious figures and ordinary voters in Kabul Province entered into conversations about the issues that matter most to them, particularly when discussing provincial council candidates.


It is evident that international expectations concerning the 2009 elections in Afghanistan were vastly unrealistic. Democratic institutions such as elections do not function independently from their political and cultural settings. In a context in which an ongoing insurgency meant that much of the country was seriously underrepresented at the polls, and in the light of a flawed voter registration process that has been a poor substitute for a valid census, it was misguided to expect the 2009 elections to be a test of “democracy” in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the pervasion of “corrupt” practices in daily political life at a national and local level in Afghanistan
makes the levels of electoral fraud unsurprising.

From this factor alone it is clear that elections are a product of and inextricably linked to the society of which they are a part. As demonstrated by this report, political power is still very much based on highly localised political groups. Therefore, the fact that most candidates did not have developed platforms and that debates between candidates were generally not substantive is also logical given that gaining votes is still primarily a question of using personal appeals and material incentives to secure voting blocs. For this reason, the few attempts that have been made by international actors to develop a political culture among candidates, for example by encouraging the formation of issues-based blocs and party platforms, have met with limited success. Similarly, initiatives to develop and encourage “civil society” in Afghanistan have had little effect, since strong tribe- and kin-based political blocs already exist, fulfilling a function very similar to that of civil society in Western societies.

When thinking about the future of Afghanistan, how 2009’s elections continue to play out politically, and particularly the upcoming Wolesi Jirga elections, the international community could gain much by reshaping their expectations and considering many of their goals more realistically within the Afghan context.
[A number of concrete proposals follow.]

Noah Coburn has a forthcoming dissertation entitled Potters and Warlords in an Afghan Bazaar: Political Mobilization, Masterly Inactivity and Violence in Post-Taliban Afghanistan (Boston University).

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