Does Afghanistan need a unity government?

The US-brokered unity government in Afghanistan does not bode well for the future stability of the c

The two sides have offered widely divergent interpretations of the unity deal, provoking daily tensions, writes Torfeh [AP]
The two sides have offered widely divergent interpretations of the unity deal, provoking daily tensions, writes Torfeh [AP]

The Independent Election Commission of Afghanistan announced on August 22 that an audit of 63 percent of the ballot boxes of the second round of presidential elections in Afghanistan has been completed, and that the adjudication process would begin on August 25. The race is close between the winner of the first round, Abdullah Abdullah, who garnered 45 percent of votes, and the winner of the highly contested run-off, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, whose share of 56 percent of votes is currently under investigation.

The unprecedented audit of 8.1 million votes cast in the second round is being done under close and extensive international supervision, led by the United Nations and in the presence of some of the UN’s top election experts. The objective according to the UN Special Representative for Afghanistan, Jan Kubis, was “to excise large scale fraud from the millions of valid votes.”

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The audit is the first part of a package proposed by US Secretary of State John Kerry and agreed to by the two candidates. The second part is the formation of a government of national unity (GNU), a  power-sharing government with a president and a chief executive. 

While the 100 percent audit was a brave suggestion by Kerry to quell the rising tension and ensure the integrity of the electoral process, it could be argued that the formation of a GNU is an irrelevant step that undermines the election results and has no public seal of approval.  The two candidates are as yet unelected in elections marred by massive fraud.

Of course the deal would benefit the candidates, as it guarantees them a seat of power whatever the results. The winner would be the president and the loser would become the chief executive with a chance of becoming the prime minister. It also benefits the Obama administration by presenting a rosy image of the post-election mess that lingers in Afghanistan. The US would also receive a signed a bilateral security agreement (BSA) before the end of 2014.

However, for the people of Afghanistan, the political framework of the GNU agreed on July 12 and revived on August 8 is likely to bring more problems than it would resolve. A mixed commission designated to iron out the differences between the two sides is already facing discord. The two sides have offered widely divergent interpretations of the deal, provoking tensions on a daily basis. The governor of Balkh province, Ata Mohammad Noor, an Abdullah supporter, has threatened an uprising in case of fraud. 

A government of disunity?

During the audit process, the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) has had to issue several statements urging the candidates’ teams to follow “codes of conduct”. In its latest statement, the UNAMA condemned the August 19 clashes between Abdullah Abdullah’s supporters and members of the election commission, which led to several people being injured.

The election process has now taken almost five months, during which time we have witnessed the trading of accusations, insults, punches, clashes, and abusive language. We have also seen the two candidates in those Kerry-mediated press conferences kissing and hugging. These are familiar scenes in Afghanistan, as are the ongoing armed clashes in half of the country. Many of us remember the short-lived alliances of the 1990s that quickly fell apart and turned into new rounds of violence and bloodshed.

Governments of national unity have been tried before, in several parts of the world. In most cases they were symptoms of a dysfunctional electoral process and did not necessarily lead to stability. They are known to bring momentary calm to tension between two sides, but are unable to remedy in the long term the underlying causes of the tension. In fact, research shows that in “multi-ethnic countries”, GNUs have “manifested more ethnically based violence”.

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Afghanistan has a highly charged multi-ethnic society, serious security challenges, and a fragile state structure that could so easily fall apart, if the wrong remedy is applied. In the past few months, partly due to the prolonged electoral process, the security situation has deteriorated and the Afghan National Army is facing serious challenges in 14 out of 34 provinces. The surge is reported to be unprecedented in the past thirteen years.

If we look closely at the agreement over the formation of the GNU, we see that it is likely to add to the confusion and discord. Take the first clause of the deal. It lays out the ambitions of the GNU to develop and implement a comprehensive programme of reform “for peace, stability, security, rule of law, justice, economic growth, and delivery of services”. How many times have we heard those pledges over the past thirteen years? And how many times have they proved impossible to achieve due to the underlying problems such as endemic corruption? Those promises would be even less attainable in a power-sharing government with a tendency to be paralysed by internal disagreements. 

Clauses two to four of the deal are even more intriguing. They call on the elected president to convene “a Loya Jirga [grand assembly] to amend the Constitution, and establish the position of an Executive Prime Minister”. Until such time the losing candidate would be “Chief Executive Officer and he in turn would nominate a leader of the opposition”. The terms are ill-defined and ambiguity over the key positions continues. Moreover, such constitutional changes would add to the complex political structure, every time opening new avenues of inter-ethnic power struggle.

This is compounded by the fact that the rival teams are composed of so many strongmen, each with their own sets of rules, their own agendas, and fiefdoms – hardly a recipe for power sharing and tolerance.

The people of Afghanistan can do without further complications. They need clear election results after a thorough audit so that they know they have a legitimately elected president who will respond to their hopes and aspirations. They do not need yet another deal made by the same power elites that have time and again let them down with their internal feuding and their failure to create consensus and democracy.

Dr Massoumeh Torfeh is former director of strategic communication at the UN Assistance Mission for Afghanistan (UNAMA) and is currently a Research Associate at the London School of Economics and Political Science, specialising in Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia.

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