Is this the death of democracy in Afghanistan?

The unity deal is widely seen as a setback in the war-battered country’s process of democratisation.

The political elite's deal has disenchanted ordinary citizens, writes Malikyar [AFP]

“Death of democracy” is the phrase that has gone viral on social media among young Afghans since the September 21 announcement of a deal between the country’s two presidential election rivals.

The live televised signing of the political deal, perhaps consciously scheduled on International Peace Day, simultaneously prompted sighs of respite and despondency. Then again, contrasting emotions, half-hearted endeavours and progress and detour have characterised the past decade of Afghanistan’s transition towards peace and progress.

Afghans celebrated the end of a deadlock that had plagued their country’s April 5 presidential elections because of the tremendous adverse effects that the impasse had brought onto the nation’s economy, security, and the function of the entire state apparatus.

However, the political deal that entails the formation of a “government of national unity” by rival presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, is widely seen as a setback in the country’s process of democratisation. By brushing aside people’s votes, the political elite’s deal has disenchanted ordinary citizens and has shaken their confidence in the democratic process.

Inevitable collapse

There is also a level of anxiety about whether the unity deal can translate into a functional government. There are already predictions of an inevitable collapse of this government. While this seems unlikely to occur, partly due to the international community’s will to maintain stability in Afghanistan, the level of functionality of the government and rehabilitation of democracy are legitimate concerns.

For example, appointments and dismissals of senior officials can potentially create serious disagreements and lead to impasse.

Inside Story – Will Afghanistan’s power sharing deal work?

Both men had to resort to attracting powerful allies during the campaign. It is predictable that those partners demand payback in the form of government positions and other favours.

Moreover, the authority of the CEO, as delineated in the agreement, is far too complex and yet open to interpretation. Once put into practise, we are sure to witness different readings on a daily basis.

The most surprising and unnerving part of the agreement, however, is covered in Article D. It stipulates that the position of the “leader of the runner-up team”, ie, the opposition leader, will be created and its “responsibilities, authorities and honours” will be officially recognised by a presidential decree. The article further clarifies that the opposition leader “will act as an ally of the national unity government”.

Oddly, this concept comes from the “Joint Declaration of 8 August”, which was brokered by US Secretary of State John Kerry. But, is it not the function of the political opposition in a democracy to keep the government’s policies and behaviour in check? Isn’t the duty of the opposition to oppose? Or is it only in Afghanistan that the world does not deem necessary to place elements essential to the development of a healthy democracy?

Smooth subordination?

Another valid apprehension stems from the fact that from a legal position, the deal can only be qualified as a power-sharing arrangement, without viable provisions for responsibility-sharing. The Afghan Constitution, while bestowing much power to the president, also holds the president responsible before the law. The agreement mentions, in passing, that the CEO will be answerable to the president, but under present political realities, it is difficult to imagine smooth subordination from a CEO who firmly believes he was the winner of the elections.

Anecdotes half-discretely coming from the two teams and from the diplomatic community in Kabul, indicate that Washington and the United Nations insisted on such a power-sharing arrangement. Ironically, the outgoing Afghan president, Hamid Karzai also seemed to agree.

There may be a host of reasons for Karzai to favour such a government to replace his 13-year rule, but what is more vital to the future of Afghanistan are the reasons behind the US role.

From 2009 onwards, the US has experienced a difficult relationship with Karzai, including the latter’s refusal to sign the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement. The very powers that in 2004 the Americans had insisted to be given by the new Afghan Constitution to the office of the president had backfired on them. It is thus conceivable to assume that to make sure not to face a strong Afghan president in the future, the Kerry unity government plan supported a division of power and an acquiescent opposition, irrespective of who would become the next head of government.

The US, whether under Republican or Democratic administration, has consistently supported stability at all costs in Afghanistan. This US phobia of chaos – even a slight threat of agitation – has cost the Afghans establishment of justice and rule of law, the very essential foundations of sustainable stability. It has also cost the US trillions of dollars, over 2,000 lives and a domestic as well as international public opinion of failure in Afghanistan.

Now, with the establishment of the new government – flawed or not – Afghanistan’s international donors have another chance to turn their inevitable long-term engagement into a meaningful investment. The world must begin to invest, in earnest, in the democratisation of Afghanistan and move away from patchwork interventions to maintain a superficial stability.

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.