The Métropolitain

Afghanistan and the Dilemma of Post-Conflict Elections

By Richard Lappin on October 1, 2009

A growing dispute over election results in Afghanistan is threatening to further destabilise the war-torn state. On Wednesday – nearly 1 month after the country went to the polls – the EU confirmed widespread fears over the credibility of the elections by announcing that as many as 1.5 million of the 6 million votes cast could be fraudulent. According to the EU, as many as 1.1 million of these ‘suspicious’ votes were allocated to the incumbent President Hamid Karzai and only 300,000 to his rival Abdullah Abdullah. With the UN-backed Electoral Complaints Commission now undertaking recounts, there is a significant chance that Karzai’s current 54.6% of the vote could slip below the 50% threshold required for victory and thus trigger a run-off poll against Abdullah Abdullah.

Karzai’s campaign team were quick to respond to the EU’s announcement, labelling their accusations as ‘partial’ and ‘irresponsible.’ However, coupled with a low turnout of just 38.7%, the legitimacy of these elections and the hopes for a sustainable peace in Afghanistan are becoming progressively more questionable.

The promise of peace has consistently eluded Afghanistan ever since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. Despite large numbers of international peacekeepers and apparent breakthrough events such as the adoption of a new constitution in 2004 and initial elections in 2005, the country continues to suffer from organised violence, rampant crime, and widespread lawlessness. Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) of ex-combatants is negligible, whilst extremists not reconciled with the peace process continue their struggle in outlaying parts of the state. Indeed, even with the presence of some 300,000 NATO peacekeepers patrolling the country on Election Day, the EU still reported how voting was ‘marred by a number of violent incidents, including rocket attacks and explosions targeting polling centres and government facilities throughout the country.’ 

Such a context makes the term ‘post-conflict’ something of a misnomer, yet this is the label which the international community favours for all states that hold democratic elections as a demonstration of their commitment to peace. Their focus has hinged on an unerring belief that democratic governance, provided through periodic and genuine elections, offers the most effective mechanism for managing and resolving societal tensions without recourse to violence. It is within this rubric that election observation missions – such as that of the EU in Afghanistan – come to the fore, and the subsequent media obsession with ‘free and fair’ elections is instigated. 

However, to judge such elections in comparison with the prevailing standards of western democracies arguably misses the true strategic purpose of post-conflict elections. A key feature of post-conflict elections is that they are not simply a means of choosing representatives but are first and foremost, what the scholar Terrence Lyons calls, a ‘war termination’ tool. Post-conflict settlements include elections primarily as a means to induce warring parties to stop the killings and agree to a non-violent resolution of the conflict, and not – despite hopeful aspirations in some quarters – to instil a fully-functioning liberal democratic government. Essentially, post-conflict elections are always a support mechanism to the peace process; not the other way around.

This privileging of war termination over democratisation is a defensible policy in volatile post-conflict countries such as Afghanistan. Indeed, without a degree of stability, the more long-term transition to liberal democratic governance becomes unfeasible. A democratic transition can not be measured solely in electoral outcomes and must include less tangible elements such as levels of inclusiveness, accountability, and trust, all of which take generations – not votes – to develop. As such, the bar of what determines the success of a post-conflict election has arguably been set too high and exaggerated expectations of democratic progress can distract us from their chief purpose, namely to bring a halt to mass killings. Based upon a negative/positive analysis, post-conflict elections can therefore be said to comprise of

(a) the ‘negative’ tasks of ending violence and establishing the formal procedures of elections, and, 

(b) the ‘positive’ tasks of deepening democracy, aiding inclusiveness and expediting a self-sustaining mechanism to handle conflicts without recourse to violence. 

The precise balance between these two objectives, as the situation in Afghanistan illustrates, remains contestable. The EU’s reputation in election observation is strong and widely respected as objective and independent. Their statements are no doubt founded upon credible evidence and their intentions to assist with the fostering of true democratic peacebuilding are laudable. Indeed, we only have to look at the backsliding of countries such as Cambodia, Bosnia, and Rwanda to understand that a pseudo-democracy is no guarantee of a peaceful future. However, what is equally true is that an Afghanistan torn by a disputed electoral process and governed by a President whose legitimacy is challenged will be weakened in its efforts to ensure the short-term stability necessary for long-term democratic consolidation.

Was the EU observation mission right to voice concerns about irregularities in the elections? And what should the response of the UN, US and wider international community be to these irregularities? Should short-term stability is favoured over long-term democratisation? This is a dilemma sharpened by the silence of US President Obama on the election results, and who is also poised to send more troops to the war-torn state as part of a new US foreign policy that places Afghanistan at its core. Predictably, there is no easy answer to such a dilemma and the true consequences of any decision may not be known for several years. What is true is that although we may feel sympathy for the alleged irregularities in the Afghan elections (and let us be reminded that systematic fraud is still to be proved), it would be foolish to forget that the primary role of post-conflict elections is war termination, not democratisation. If the former is not achieved, the latter will be all but impossible.