Afghanistan’s presidential election cause for cautious optimism

Afghanistan’s presidential election cause for cautious optimism

Afghans have shown their determination to defy the Taliban and support a democratic future, writes Nematullah Bizhan

The Afghan presidential election on 5 April reflected the resilience of Afghan society and its confidence in a legitimate political transition to a peaceful and stable future. It showed that not only is democracy welcome in Afghanistan but that there is popular support for democratic processes.

Despite the deadly threat of the Taliban and their attempts to disturb voting (there were with 140 attacks on election day), voter turnout was about 58 per cent, higher than previous elections—a reflection of Afghan determination to defy the Taliban and fight inefficiency and corruption.

The election will allow Afghans to witness, for the first time in their history, the transition of power from one elected president to another.

The campaign also brought people and politicians closer together. The leading candidates travelled to most provinces and cities to meet people, despite the security risks. There was also strong support from a broad section of Afghan society—the media, civil society organisations, youth, and religious and traditional leaders. Election observers, and the presidential candidates themselves, assessed the election as being cleaner and more credible than the 2009 presidential election.

Afghan security forces effectively secured the vote on election day. Unlike previous elections, this one was entirely owned and run by Afghans. The United Nations and other international actors observed the process and financed the election.


While the election day was an historical success for Afghans, a long road lies ahead. The preliminary results (10 per cent—above half a million votes) from 26 provinces portend a run-off, as none of the candidates may yet secure the 50 per cent plus one vote required for victory. Former foreign affairs minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah (pictured) got 41.9 per cent of the vote; former finance minister Dr Ashraf Ghani, 36.7 per cent; and another former foreign affairs minister, Dr Zalmai Rasul, 9.8 per cent.

Under the Afghan Constitution the second round between the top two candidates should be called within two weeks of the final results, due on 28 May. These candidates can then either form a coalition government or contest a second round. An alliance between Dr Rasul and either Dr Abdullah or Dr Ghani could increase either of their chances of winning the runoff. But the Taliban threat and election fatigue in the second round should not be underestimated, making such a contest undesirable.

Dealing with the Taliban

In a society as fragmented as Afghanistan’s, the formation of a coalition or inclusive government would seem to be the pragmatic course. This could reduce polarisation along ethnic and regional lines, as each candidate has strong support in one region but is weak in another. A coalition could also help the new government deal effectively with the Taliban.

The lessons from this and previous elections indicate that improved governance in order to overcome immediate and long-term challenges is imperative. Previous elections produced new forms of patronage and enhanced existing forms—not because of the election itself but because of the way coalitions were built and supporters mobilised. Policies, laws and programs promised during election campaigns were barely implemented, and institutions were offered to individuals in return for political support.

Patronage-based appointments undermined institutions, development efforts and fair competition. If Afghanistan is to succeed, a merit-based and ethnically balanced cabinet and leadership will be essential. Winning an election does not mean an unrestricted permit for the successful candidate or coalition to reward their political supporters, but a trust to serve all the nation’s citizens.

The political participation of Afghans—and their enthusiasm and defiance of the Taliban—in this election was an historical achievement.

Legitimacy and popularity will be crucial if the new government is to overcome Afghanistan’s many pressing challenges. These include the threat from the Taliban and their associates, and reforming the process of reconciling with the Taliban. The government will also need to improve governance and curb corruption and patronage. And it will need to encourage investment and revive economic activities.

Redefining Afghanistan’s strategic relationship with the West—especially with the United States—is another high priority. The relationship with the United States has deteriorated in the past year after the signing of a bilateral security agreement was postponed.

Afghanistan’s high dependency on aid—foreign aid comprises about 90 per cent of public expenditure—is further evidence of the importance of the international community, until the country can utilise its potential, such as its natural resources and its geographically strategic position as a transit point between Central Asia and South Asia.

The political participation of Afghans—and their enthusiasm and defiance of the Taliban—in this election was an historical achievement, disproving Afghanistan’s portrayal as a tribal society unwelcoming of democracy.

While one should be cautiously optimistic about Afghanistan’s future, a successful political transition could mark the beginning of a constructive era and the convergence of relations between the state and society.

Main photo:
Voters queuing up in front of a polling center in western Herat province (USAID Afghanistan).

Nematullah Bizhan is a research scholar at the Centre for Arab and Islamic Studies (The Middle East & Central Asia), and research associate at the Development Policy Centre, Crawford School of Public Policy, at the Australian National University. He is also the former Director-General for Policy, Monitoring and Evaluation of the Afghanistan National Development Strategy.

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