Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Election Stalemate and the Revival of Old Fault Lines (updated)

Martine van Bijlert 5 min

To all those who have lost track of what’s going on with the Afghan Parliamentary elections: don’t feel too bad. It has become very difficult to follow, even for those of us who really try – not just in terms of who is pushing for what and what that may result in, but also in terms of how deep the crisis is. The question underlying the bickering is whether this will ultimately fizzle out and blow over, or whether it will develop into a full-blown (although possibly very slow) collapse of the Afghanistan as we have come to know it.

There is, first of all, the legal and institutional bickering on whether the judiciary is allowed to intervene in electoral matters and to what extent fraud investigations should be allowed to modify the election outcome. The main confrontations so far have been between the Attorney General’s Office and the electoral authorities, although other institutions such as the Supreme Court and the Independent Commission for the Supervision of the Implementation of the Constitution have occasionally also been drawn into the fray. In the latest instalment of confusion the Supreme Court has now announced the establishment of a special court to “address all legal cases of the protesting candidates of the parliamentary poll” (the proposal has not yet been approved by the President and it remains unclear what the effect of such a court may be on the composition of the new Parliament. – update: the establishment of the special court was approved by the President on 26 December, details remain unclear).

The reason the discussion has remained unresolved for so long is two- or probably even threefold. First of all, this year’s electoral design allowed for far-reaching disqualifications of votes and (winning) candidates by the IEC and ECC, with virtually no checks, no recourse and only minimal transparency. The question of how to respond if the system malfunctioned or was manipulated was left unanswered and remains so to this day. This is a gap that is being filled by the Attorney-General’s Office and possibly the Supreme Court, but not in a very convincing way. The joint IEC and ECC defence, on the other hand, arguing that they are independent institutions, that elections is their field, and that for that reason no one has the right to intervene or to second-guess them, is also not very persuasive, in particular given the spreading perception that the results have been intentionally engineered.

Second, there is the more fundamental problem that Afghanistan’s system has no centre of gravity, no mechanism for arbitration, no power that has the final say. In a system where many of the authorities are still ill-defined, this leaves a lot of room for posturing and for making things up as you go along, in the hope that they will somehow stick (either by not being contested or by receiving powerful backing of some sort). But the game has to be played cleverly, because having to publicly back down will only damage the prestige of the institution and the people that run it. This partially explains why the Attorney General’s Office and the Supreme Court have remained so inarticulate on what needs to be done with the election results, as each would prefer the other to embark on a confrontation they may not win.

But what is even more important, is that Karzai still doesn’t seem to have made up his mind on what to do with the results. It has become a complicated calculation in which every possible course of action seems to bode badly.

The debate in and around the palace has moved well beyond simple questions of fraud and influence. It now centres on the conviction that the elections were hijacked in order to skew the ethnic and factional balance in Parliament – by bringing in strong Tajik candidates, increasing the numbers of the non-Pashtun MPs, and handpicking “young calves” to represent the Pashtuns. This is seen as part of a wider and determined bid to change the Constitution, infiltrate key institutions, get rid of the President, and fundamentally change the country’s balance of power. It is a narrative that resonates with at least part of the Pashtun constituency that has been watching other developments, such as the rather thorough reshuffle of the police apparatus, with rising suspicion. Over the last few weeks many interlocutors have gravely predicted that if Karzai goes along with the election results, his days will be numbered.

Several of them have pointed to a string of influential disgruntled candidates, who are well-placed to cut off the country’s main roads and to create mayhem (some even go so far as to suggest that this combination of candidates has been intentionally disqualified to provoke instability). Others predict that the new Parliament will move swiftly to impeach the President, initiate legal proceedings against him, or ask awkward questions about his mental health. Almost all have suggested that Karzai will end up with virtually no constituency. But although this line of reasoning suggests that the President cannot accept the current results without risking to lose whatever support he has left and possibly unleash a series of events leading to great instability, it is not so obvious what he should do to avoid this scenario. Pushing for a recount or an annulment of the elections seems equally unattractive and fraught with risks, given both the wrath of yet another constituency that would unleash and the desire of the internationals to get the Parliament going and to move on.

One of the most striking features of the recent developments has been the revival of old fault lines and the deepening of existing prejudices. The election outcome has been increasingly framed as a political encroachment by the Northern Alliance aimed at marginalising the Pashtuns on one hand, and by commissioners with PDPA backgrounds against mujahedin personalities on the other. In this analysis the 2010 election is not just seen as a brief messy and fraudulent episode after which political life will continue as normal, but rather as a possible turning point after which anything could happen. Many conversations these days are infused with a sense of crisis.

The President, the Attorney-General and the Supreme Court have to tread carefully. If they actively seek to block the new Parliament, but are unsuccessful in doing so, they will suffer the consequences in terms of a problematic relationship and a likely barrage of non-confidence votes.This probably explains why Karzai in his conversations with newly elected MPs has seemingly already moved on, citing possible inauguration dates and discussing the various candidates for the position of Speaker of Parliament. At the same time senior staff of both the Attorney-General and the Supreme Court have been consistently assuring the main disgruntled candidates that their cases will be pursued and their rights restored.

Both Parliaments in the meantime have tried to force the situation with the old one continuing its sessions, arguing that they are the de factolegislative until the new one is inaugurated, and the new one threatening to start convening meetings in the Parliamentary building while pushing for a swift inauguration. As a result, the area has now been cordoned off by the public order police and declared off limits to all.

This situation of ambiguity may well muddle on right up to 21 January 2011, the date that is mentioned most as a potential inauguration date. The election results may hold, just because they haven’t been overturned, but the political constellation will have changed. And what happens in the coming weeks will set the tone for the confrontations to come.


Democratization Elections Government


Martine van Bijlert

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