Afghans pin new hopes on national unity government

Afghans pin new hopes on national unity government

Keeping together a fragile alliance will be a challenge for Afghanistan’s new national government, writes NIAMATULLAH IBRAHIMI.

On 29 September, to the relief of Afghans and the international community, Afghanistan’s national unity government was sworn in after a prolonged and disputed presidential runoff. This was the first peaceful transfer of power from one elected president to another in the country’s history. The dispute had led to fears that Afghanistan could again relapse into civil war.

After weeks of intense negotiations, the two contenders of the 14 June disputed runoff—Ashraf Ghani and Abudullah Abdullah—agreed to divide power and set up a government of national unity. Ghani was announced president and Abdullah was given the newly created post of chief executive officer.

[ratina][/ratina]Ghani, a former World Bank technocrat and Minister of Finance under President Hamid Karzai, accepted the power-sharing agreement after the highly controversial runoff put him ahead of Abdullah.

In the first round, Abdullah topped the list with 45 per cent of the vote, while Ghani, his closest rival, received 31 per cent. The outcome of the second round became intensely controversial after preliminary results put Ghani ahead of Abdullah, 56 per cent to 44 per cent. Abdullah accused the rival team, and the Afghanistan Independent Election Commission, of orchestrating fraud on a massive scale. A risk of relapse into civil violence was averted with intensive diplomatic efforts, including two visits by the US Secretary of State John Kerry.

Afghans relieved

While most Afghans were relieved that a new government had been formed, many were disappointed the popular vote did not result in a direct electoral outcome, and concerned that the settlement could jeopardise the democratic process that began with the international intervention in 2001. Had Afghanistan managed the transition to a new leadership through a credible electoral process, they believed, then domestic and international confidence could grow in the durability of the political process.

The formation of a national unity government to resolve an electoral crisis like Afghanistan’s is, however, not unprecedented. Kenya, in 2007, and Zimbabwe, in 2008, offer the most similar examples, where the need for stability outweighed the desire for a clear election outcome.

Thomas Ruttig, from the Afghanistan Analysts Network, who has looked at the possible lessons of these examples for Afghanistan, noted that, for the national unity governments to succeed, ‘political will of the elites and international attention are key factors’.

The new national unity government has the opportunity to work together to meet some of the expectations of the Afghan people, and to gain political legitimacy through effective policy implementation. Since his inauguration, President Ghani has signed the long-overdue bilateral security agreement with the United States and has shown willingness to address corruption and improve governance. Realising Afghanistan’s need for continued foreign assistance, Ghani seems to be targeting most of his early efforts towards his external audience, particularly the donor countries. Some of his measures, especially his order to fight high-profile corruption, represent a departure from the government of his predecessor, which could pit him against some powerful political players within Afghanistan.

Legitimacy at risk

While success in these early efforts has the potential to set the tone for the rest of Ghani’s term in office, any failure could put the trembling legitimacy of the unity government at risk. Afghanistan remains a highly fragile state, and the risks facing the power arrangement cannot be underestimated. The country faces a resilient insurgency and a struggling economy that is heavily dependent on foreign aid. Corruption and mismanagement in state institutions in recent years have threatened popular support as well as future international donor funding. Hence the new government needs to take immediate measures to restore confidence in state institutions and revive the economy, which has received significant blows over the past year as a result of the international military withdrawal and the prolonged electoral crisis.

A divided government would risk paralysis in devising and implementing important policies at a time when the Afghan government is expected to take greater responsibility for the country’s economy and security.

It is also likely that the power-sharing deal perpetuates some of the flaws of the political dispensation that has taken shape in past years. Since the Interim Authority that was agreed at the Bonn Conference in 2001, Afghanistan has had an oversized government, with many ministries created to accommodate various political factions rather than to discharge the functions of government. A major challenge for the national unity agreement is that pressure to accommodate all factions of the two electoral teams could result in big government at a time when the country is predicted to see a significant reduction in foreign budgetary assistance.

The key to addressing and managing these challenges lies in the two leaders establishing a firm working relationship. A divided government would risk paralysis in devising and implementing important policies at a time when the Afghan government is expected to take greater responsibility for the country’s economy and security. Factions and groups in both electoral coalitions dissatisfied with the distribution of power could become spoilers. The only way to avoid this is for Ghani and Abdullah to move beyond factional politics and put the country’s national interests ahead of group politics.

No stranger to challenges

President Ghani, however, is no stranger to the challenges of governing a country like Afghanistan. He is one of those rare academics who get the opportunity to put their ideas for governing fragile states into practice. As coauthor of Fixing failed states, he knows he has to deliver practical results in key areas, ranging from improving governance and the rule of law, to reviving the country, to fighting, and to negotiating an end to the insurgency.

National unity governments are short-term arrangements for more long-term and complex problems. The Afghan political elites, and the international community, need to engage in serious debate to explore and tackle the underlying institutional and political dynamics that turned what began as a democratic exercise into a disastrous crisis that pushed the country to the brink of full civil war.

Under the power-sharing agreement, a constitutional Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) will be convened within two years to revise the 2004 constitution and create a prime ministerial position. During this period, sustained international attention will be required to ensure that the current temporary arrangement is used to address some of the structural and institutional factors that contributed to the intensity of the presidential contest and turned it into a zero-sum game.

The failure of Afghanistan’s electoral institutions to administer a transparent and credible election should be at the centre of the lesson-learning exercise. For example, the concentration of powers in the president’s office in the 2004 constitution has created one of the most centralised presidential systems in the world. This concentration of power in a single office in a divided society in the midst of conflict was an important factor in making the crisis resistant to resolution.

Furthermore, Afghanistan’s single non-transferable voting system has discouraged political parties and promoted the person-centred politics that is central to the patronage-based and volatile political alignments of recent years. If the experience of democracies around the world can serve as a guide for Afghanistan, it is that the endurance of any form of democracy requires intricate and complex checks and balances of power, and organised political parties.

Afghan presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani (left) shakes hands with rival candidate Abdullah Abdullah after both addressed reporters at the United Nations Mission Headquarters in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 12, 2014, about the details of an agreement on a technical and political plan U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry helped broker to resolve the disputed outcome of the election between him and Abdullah (U.S. Department of State).

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