Afghanistan's political structure in dire need of basic reforms  

April 20, 2020 - 14:17

Making fundamental changes in Afghanistan's political system can be regarded a the best way towards attaining a stable powerful government, decentralization of power, putting an end to decade-long conflicts and meeting the Afghans' interests.

"Afghanistan is constantly in tension between having either a centralized government or a decentralized one, between a parliamentary system or a presidential system and between having a strong president or a strong prime minister, and which one of them should have more power," Zabihullah Saleem, a lawyer, and researcher educated in the Ahmad Ibrahim Faculty of Law in the International Islamic University of Malaysia wrote in his article published by Khaama Press.

The country needs stability which a strong president can bring, but at the same time, it does not need a dictator, which may lead to abuse of power. Constitutional and political reforms should not be sidelined and steps that are necessary to make it a reality needs to be taken. These changes will not be possible without political maturity and the presence of reasonable political parties.

With the conclusion of the announcement of the delayed election results, Afghanistan’s Independent Election Commission (IEC) in mid-February stated that President Ashraf Ghani had won a second five-year term. This has propelled the country into a political crisis, which threatens the impending peace agreement between the United States and the Taliban.

The response of Ghani’s main opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, who has been the Chief Executive Officer of the Unity Government of Afghanistan, was that the election results were marred with fraud and it was ultimately the intention that the IEC results would lead to a coup.

Furthermore, Abdullah threatened to form an alternative government, one that would be managed independently as the current recognized government.

Ghani’s own vice president, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, called for citizens to march into the streets to protest.

Two decades of increasingly and consistent fraudulent elections have impaired Afghans' trust in democracy. This was demonstrated by an appallingly low voter turnout level. It was less than 20 percent of the qualified population that voted in the September 2019 election. There were many reasons as to why the turnout was particularly low. In addition to Afghans' low trust in democracy, corruption allegations and insecurity were also among the many reasons that fewer Afghans voted.

Without an urgent remodel of Afghanistan’s political system, Afghanistan will continue to be tangled in factionalism and civil conflict.

Without a political refashion, peace will almost be impossible in Afghanistan.

Afghanistan’s current political system is the single major obstruction for peace. It has seen the rise of government predation that emanated from a deteriorated government, which also gave confidence for insurgence to flourish. The system is in deep conflict with Afghanistan’s decentralized political reality. This deprived Afghans from living under a productive and effective government.

Political reform was largely absent in political institutions post-Taliban. An ineffective government rekindled from the constitution bore with it an excessive Soviet influence. Initially, Afghans welcomed democracy in the country, but this soon turned sour when they realized that the government hasn’t changed much and maintained the same standard centralized authority they had seen. It then saw democratic elections being laid down on a centralized system that was essentially disintegrating.

It is not unheard of that Afghanistan has one of the most centralized systems in the world. It is within the discretionary power of the President to appoint all ministers, including all officials at the sub-national level which includes provincial and district governors and mayors. Decisions on a budget are made in Kabul, whereby MPs in the Afghan parliament approve fiscal budgets every year. This centralization has grown extensively in conflict with a society that has over time developed into a self-sufficient volatile society that has learned the art of self-governance.

Afghanistan is home to a rich society that comprises of ethnic, linguistic, and religious diversity. In Afghanistan, it is not incorrect to say that due to this diversity, it opposes the maturation of an inclusive and legitimate government that is a true representation of local interests.

Afghanistan has held four presidential elections to date. Every election was tarnished with corruption and fraud. The 2014 presidential election is evidence of this. The outcome of the election failed to discern a winner, with both candidates claiming that they had won. After a standoff between Ghani and his rival Abdullah, the then US Secretary of State John Kerry flew to Kabul and brokered an agreement which led to the creation of a National Unity Government (NUG) between the two rivals. This agreement saw the appointment of Abdullah to the newly created, extra-constitutional position of chief executive officer.

The election in 2014 exposed the flaws deeply rooted in the constitutionally dictated political system. NUG merely created short-term political stability. One of the issues mentioned in the deal was the materialization of political reforms including establishments of a constitutional Loya Jirga.

A Loya Jirga, or “grand council” in Pashto language, is a mass national gathering that brings together representatives from the various ethnic, religious, and tribal communities in Afghanistan. In addition to a constitutional Loya Jirga, a constitutional convention that would reform the presidential system was also promised, as well as a parliamentary system or at the very least a semi-presidential system.

These promises, whose sole intention was to prevent fraud and to solidify unity, were not executed. This led to political turmoil in the country with the NUG’s failure to uphold those promises. Later on, a presidential election was initiated in late 2019.

It was insisted by political factions that political reforms must come before negotiations with the Taliban. Abdullah and his allies hoped for greater decentralization of authority to secure a better representation of minority groups. Their main contention is that the current system is not responsive to Afghanistan’s political problems.

On the other hand, Ghani argued that Afghanistan needs to have a strong central government when in negotiations with the Taliban. A strong central government allows for better representation and division of power between the center and states, Ghani opined.

However, due to the vast diversity in locality in Afghanistan, their inclusion in politics was not entirely realized. This shows that peace can only be realized with either a new constitution or a series of constitutional amendments that will redistribute and decentralize power. This will make it easier for more inclusion and the recognition of plurality in the country. Without these reforms, it would be difficult to meet the interests of minority groups in the country.

With low turnouts in the recent election, the exclusion of major actors from power, and the growing domination of the Taliban, the government will undoubtedly face serious challenges.

It is important for the Afghan government and the international community, especially the United States, to consider two important steps that can enable peace to be realized in Afghanistan.

Firstly, more consideration needs to be given to Afghanistan’s local conditions. Local political institutions have a strong foothold in Afghanistan; however, due to existing conflicts, the mentioned institutions have been disconnected from the central government. Locals have learned to create institutions in their villages that have political determination. It is necessary that the government includes these parties to ensure that different groups are represented in the political system. Such power-sharing is possible through decentralization and recognition of Afghanistan’s extensive self-governance capabilities.

Secondly, modification of the constitution must be done as a necessity. In light of Afghanistan’s local diversity, the government needs to prioritize constitutional reforms. This will allow a smooth transition from a centralized government to one that is decentralized to gain greater political inclusion.

After bitterly disputing the results of the 2014 election, Abdullah and Ghani were brought to the negotiating table by the US and agreed to run the government together - but fissures within the national unity government often came to the fore.

Their five years of the partnership were often fraught with disagreements, bickering, and rifts, bringing the government to a standstill on several occasions.

But the recent dispute between the country's two most senior leaders could not have come at a more sensitive time for Afghanistan.

Hours after Afghanistan's incumbent President Ghani was declared in early March as the winner of the September 28 presidential election, runner-up Abdullah contested the much-delayed results, highlighting the power struggle between the two leaders.

MJ

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