Experts see dim prospects for democracy in Afghanistan

With competing claims of victory and an on-and-off recount in the September 28 presidential election, many citizens believe the vote was rigged by Washington

Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan September 28, 2019 (photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI)
Afghan election commission workers count ballot papers of the presidential election in Kabul, Afghanistan September 28, 2019
(photo credit: REUTERS/OMAR SOBHANI)
Prospects for Afghanistan’s democracy appear bleak as the country’s Independent Election Commission announced this week that the results of a recount in the country’s September 28 presidential vote were being delayed yet again.
The tally was originally due on October 19 but was delayed to November 14 because of allegations of wide-scale voting irregularities.
The leading candidates, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, have both declared themselves the winner.
“It was a choice between two incumbents, neither of whom people are very excited about,” Kate Clark, co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, a nonpartisan research organization, told The Media Line. “[The votes of] people staying at home did not seem to be votes against democracy per se, but what was on offer in this election.”
The turnout was the lowest since Afghanistan started holding elections following the US invasion in 2001, with an approximately 25 percent voting rate among eligible citizens.
Omar Samad, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former ambassador of Afghanistan to France and Canada, believes it will take major changes to boost voter participation.
“There is a certain level of apathy and mistrust in the electoral system amongst voters,” Samad said. “Part of the population wants to see a reformed system and more trust [that] their vote will count before they reengage.”
As it is foreign aid that fills much of Afghanistan’s coffers, Clark says that many Afghani citizens believe elections are manipulated by the US, the country’s largest bankroller.
“Foreign donors [are seen as having] more sway over elected officials than the average citizen,” she explained.
Supporting this view is Mohammed Daud Miraki, an Afghanistan-born, US-based academic and activist.
“Ghani and Abdullah are American stooges,” he told The Media Line. “The voters did not participate because they came to their senses that the presence of foreign, combative forces does not amount to development.”
But Graeme Smith, a senior consultant on Afghanistan for the International Crisis Group, believes that perceptions of Washington’s actual role in the election are inflated.
“It’s not unusual for Afghan politicians to hire political advisers in Washington on the assumption that this will help their prospects,” Smith told The Media Line. “I can tell you from firsthand experience that American diplomats in Kabul are often surprised by what happens at the ballot box.”
Samad takes a more nuanced view.
“Afghanistan being a special case, part of [its] election costs are covered. [Still,] the process has mostly been an Afghan process, as it is supposed to be,” he said.
According to Clark, the likelihood of American-style democracy in Afghanistan is slim because the government is not beholden to its citizens.
“The government is dependent not on taxes… but on foreign aid,” she stated. “Countries that are dependent on foreign aid for their revenue tend not to be democracies.”
Samad believes that in order to improve things, Afghanistan’s politicians should resort to legislation to better the system.
“Democracy in Afghanistan is still the best option, but it has faced a rocky road,” he said. “It has been manipulated by irresponsible politicians, and it needs to be reformed and repaired if we want to keep it as a foundation for a new Afghanistan. We have to fight fraud and corruption, and rebuild popular trust.”
For him, this means talking to the Taliban.
“We… need to realize that we have to discuss this with the Taliban in future talks about how to create the right model for democracy,” he said.