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Why Afghanistan's National Unity Government Is Risky

Foreign Policy JULY 22, 2014 

As the 2014 electoral crisis in Afghanistan intensified, we argued for a rigorous, internationally supervised, technical audit backed by political dialogue and engagement as the way forward. Details emerging in recent days show the crisis was much more serious than it appeared: The country was on the verge of fragmenting, if not a full-on civil war. With the announcement of a deal following the intervention of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, the immediate crisis has been averted. 

The proposal for a unity government is lacking in both form and structure. In the absence of well-organized political parties, a unity government in the Afghan context may mean ethnic distribution of power, which has been the de facto formula under Hamid Karzai's administration. There are already signs that each campaign has different understandings of what a unity government entails: Mohammad Mohaqiq, Abdullah's second vice president, was quick to announce that according to the agreement a "chief executive officer" post will be created to accommodate the losing candidate (or a member from his team) within a two-year period. 

Thus, it appears, Abdullah envisions a unity government to mean "power-sharing." Ghani, on the other hand, has revealed little. But given Ghani's administrative proclivities, it is unlikely he will allow such a power-sharing schema and will instead favor a procedural (rules-based) process via which Abdullah is accommodated into the new administration. Thus, this would not entail power-sharing but would be more akin to a coalition-government. 

A major source of the electoral crisis is the "winner-take-all" outcome that the centralized presidential system engenders. Proponents of change argue that a prime-ministerial post (and subsequent parliamentary system) can help mitigate some of the concerns regarding the presidential system, i.e. power-concentration in one office that heightens the costs of political alignments in an ethnically polarized context. Thus, a functional distribution of power between the president (as head of state) and prime minister (as head of government) can ensure greater checks and balances within the system. 

While we are cautiously optimistic that a unity government will be realized, the process might be somewhat complicated once the audit outcome becomes clear. First, there is the real possibility that candidates might balk at accepting the audit's verdict. Second, and as one analyst has suggested, Pashtuns and non-Pashtuns must be careful to not interpret the recount results as shutting out their populations as this may result in further civil unrest.

There are, however, both short- and-long-term concerns with a proposed unity government. For starters, a unity government is a band-aid solution to a more long-term problem. It entails reconfiguring the elite alignments that make up the electoral coalitions. An important aspect of coalition building is the promise of government posts and ministerial portfolios; failure to keep promises may well lead to dissolution of the coalition. It is far from clear how the two candidates will keep their promises since a unity government in Kabul cannot accommodate all groups that comprise the two main electoral coalitions. 

In the longer term, a national unity government may undermine the effectiveness of state institutions and result in policy paralysis at a time when Afghanistan needs smaller, but more effective governance. Once power is divided among competing factions (in order to accommodate the major groups), accountability and the rule of law may be the first casualties. Actors wielding executive authority may revert to patronage and clientelistic networks in an attempt to solidify their power and authority.

While the audit and prospect of a unity or coalition government provide the losing candidate a means to save face via political compromise, they harm prospects of strengthening institutional (and procedural) democracy. The message sent to actors in future elections is this: Rig elections or threaten political destabilization, and you will be guaranteed a political post! 

Electoral reform is another long-term concern that any unity government will be forced to address. The current single nontransferable vote (SNTV) system has shown its potential to destabilize the country -- it militates against the establishment of political parties by privileging independents to run for office, which, in turn, enables the ethnic distribution of power. First, in the provinces, the system creates contradictions by hoarding power in the hands of the best organized candidates with large ethnic/tribal networks, resources, and high profiles. Second, in highly populous areas, individual candidates can receive as little as 5 percent of the overall vote and still be elected to office. Therefore, the SNTV system makes for extremely fragmented electoral results, complicating the building of enduring party-based coalitions in parliament: A large majority of those in parliament are elected by a small minority of their constituencies.

 Provincial interests, let alone national interests, are hardly articulated. In this sense, the SNTV system serves to create a fractured and divided parliament that struggles to assert itself. For any proposed unity government to be workable and worthwhile, the SNTV system will need to be scrapped and replaced by a parliamentary system with political parties, including a robust opposition. 

While it is in Afghan and U.S. interests to ensure a smooth transition to a new leadership before the planned military drawdown, the risks of a similar electoral standoff will be much higher in the future, when there is no ISAF to guarantee the safe passage of ballot boxes to the capital and the level of international interest and engagement decreases. It is imperative, therefore, that the candidates -- regardless of the audit outcome -- recognize and agree to address the structural and institutional deficiencies that contributed to the present crisis.