Afghan Legitimacy and Electoral Reform

Speech by Thomas.H Johnson at the 7th “Herat Security Dialogue”


My presentation is going to address three critical dynamics:

  1. The importance of regime legitimacy in Afghanistan
  2. Deficiencies with the Afghan electoral system focusing both on the elections of the Wolsei Jirga and the President.
  3. What needs to be done, from my perspective, to improve elections in Afghanistan and thus making them more legitimate?

Political Legitimacy

Political legitimacy is the critical foundation for success in governance. Whatever its source, when legitimacy exists a government is secure. A government with a truly high degree of legitimacy cannot easily be challenged, but when legitimacy is low or lacking, any number of issues can undermine a government. In the complete absence of legitimacy, only the ability to exercise coercive power can secure the state. Niccolò Machiavelli noted as much when he said, “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” Insurgency theorists and practitioners such as Mao Zedong have argued that a key indicator of insurgent success is if the regime in question has 80% legitimacy in the view of its citizens. A government with this level of legitimacy, not popularity, is extremely difficult to unseat through an insurgency or other violent means.

Afghanistan, in its present incarnation, (let me stress its PRESENT incarnation) was somewhat artificially created and a relatively young state. For most of its history, its government did not need great legitimacy, since the state center was relatively weak and legitimacy primarily was focused on the Royal Family and at the kalay (or village) and District level. Legitimacy of the central government, perhaps because of the substantial autonomy of the countryside, was primarily based on having a generally-accepted royal family whose influence extended little beyond Kabul in normal times, and indirect rule through provincial governors and district administrators to represent the capital in remote regions. In this system, legitimacy came from traditional (dynastic succession), religious approval (the blessing of the clerics, or ulema), and cultural sources. Since 1976 Afghanistan has been caught in a seemingly endless war, which has undermined nearly all sources of legitimacy.

The Soviet invasion of 1979 and a decade-long, highly-destructive war destroyed or badly tarnished the remaining institutions and customs that might confer legitimacy. The landed elites and clerics, traditional sources of legitimacy, were directly targeted by the Soviets and Communist regime and killed or driven into exile. Destruction of the traditional local power and judicial systems had a tremendous impact on nearly all aspects of Afghan life, especially in the rural areas where 75-80% of the population lives. Meanwhile, opposition to the Communist government in Kabul formed along ethnolinguistic lines, but also was largely controlled by Islamist opponents to the Communists, thus changing the way Islam was used to confer legitimacy on political leaders in Afghanistan. The period from 1992 to 2001 saw the rise of warlords and the Taliban, none of whom could really claim legitimacy outside of their supporters, who increasingly gave their support to their ethnic, tribal, or village leaders and distrusted leaders of other Afghan ethnic groups or regions. This behavior is quite normal for a protracted civil war in a country divided along ethno-linguistic lines as argued by Dr. Barnet Rubin’s seminal Fragmentation of Afghanistan.

The 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States prompted a US-led intervention into Afghanistan’s endless conflict but failed to end that war. Our generals and politicians tend to see the reasons for that failure in terms of the war itself. As with the Vietnam War, we have focused on “Afghanization,” “the light at the end of the tunnel,” attacking cross-border Taliban sanctuaries, and kill ratios. But our failure has not been in doing a better job of killing enemies, but rather in not doing a better job of helping Afghanistan build a legitimate central government and related institutions.

Afghan Institutions and Political Road Map

The 2001 Bonn Accords, 2002 June Emergency Loya Jirga, 2004 Constitutional Loya Jirga, and the various elections since then, it can be argued, have all done little to legitimize a government known for being relatively corrupt. In fact, because of significant illegal voting in all elections since the initial 2004 presidential election, elections – meant to legitimize – have become viewed as a continuation of the massive levels of corruption that guide most aspects of Afghan life and delegitimize the government every day. Since the Taliban were the primary Afghan opponent of the US-led forces in 2001-2002, and the Pashtun had traditionally ruled the country, the Interim Authority of 2001 and early 2002 and Transitional Government of 2002-2004 were doomed to be unreflective of traditional Afghan cleavages and were made worse as outsiders tried to reward the leaders of various Afghan minority groups with governmental positions. This was especially true in the national and domestic security realms because the Northern Alliance, basically a non-Pashtun force, could claim responsibility for destroying the Taliban regime (of course, with US support). 

The Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2004 produced a complex electoral system that further emphasized natural cleavages within the population and guaranteed that no governmental office based on election or appointment could help make the government legitimate. After long years of war that destroyed the traditional sources of legitimacy and the careful identity group balance within the country, Afghanistan needed a new foundation for legitimacy. The US government, committed to the notion that democracy is the best form of government but unable to see democracy development beyond elections, naturally focused on electoral systems as the new basis of legitimacy for Afghanistan, even if those systems actually made the situation worse.

Afghan Elections

Presidential elections in 2004, 2009, and 2014 were all marred by increasing levels of malfeasance such that in each case the international community considered withholding certification. This came as no surprise to electoral specialists, as Afghanistan’s presidential electoral system was designed by the Afghan Constitution as a two-round system where, if no candidate had a simple majority after the first round then a second round is held between the top two candidates. Also, candidates ran on tickets that include a first and second vice president that represent other ethnic groups. Given Afghanistan’s history of political dominance by the largest ethnic group, the Pashtun, this meant the only serious tickets would have a Pashtun (or part Pashtun) for president, a Tajik for first vice president, and an Uzbek or Hazara as second vice president. Since the Pashtun are still the world’s largest remaining tribal confederation and much of the Taliban opposition comes primarily, but not exclusively from the Pashtun tribes, however, the invitation for ballot box stuffing is very real in those Pashtun areas where a candidate has a tribal stronghold.

Naturally, analyses of Afghan presidential elections in this century have found a robust and recurring ethno-linguistic voting pattern – that is, ethnicities voting for candidates from their own group. As I have written Afghanistan’s elections from 2004 to the present have “witnessed voters casting their votes, both valid and fraudulent, according, in large part, according to their ethno-linguistic affinities. Afghanistan remains a deeply ethnically fragmented and this fragmentation presents significant challenges for the development of democratic institutions and cohesive and legitimate governmental institutions.” Thus, no truly national candidates have been able to arise, as voting reflects ethnic cleavages that have long driven Afghan politics.

Parliamentary elections for the lower house have also been marred by high levels of irregularities and undermined by a poorly chosen electoral system, Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), where each voter votes once among candidates in multi-member constituencies. Normally under SNTV strong political parties able to engage in tactical voting can maximize their candidates’ chances of victory, but following the 2004 constitution Afghanistan initially outlawed and later discouraged political parties thereby making all lower house elections into contests along ethnolinguistic or tribal lines, often requiring only a handful of votes to secure a seat. For example, in the 2010 legislative elections, 664 candidates ran for 33 Kabul Province lower house (Wolesi Jirga) seats. Haji Muhammad Mohaqiq finished first with 3.6% of the vote and 21 of 33 candidates were elected with less than 1% of vote. Countrywide only 35% of Afghan voters voted for a winning candidate!  This year the Wolsei Jirga results should be even more skewed.  Consider in Kabul Province 800 candidates ran for 33 positions. Do the math, the leading vote getter may get only 2% of the vote! The US pushed electoral instruments such as the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV) on Afghan legislative – Wolesi Jirga – elections seemingly because they desired a legislative body but not one that could credibly challenge Hamid Karzai.

Earlier parliamentary elections in 2005 and 2010 were deeply flawed, and the delayed parliamentary elections of last weekend also show evidence that they will fall far short of “free and fair” as suggested above.

Thus, the best foundation for successful governance, legitimacy, does not exist in Afghanistan. Traditional legitimacy was destroyed before and during the Soviet War of the 1980s, the charismatic and religious legitimacy of the mujahideen commanders coming out of that war was destroyed by their ugly violations of civility in the 1990s, and the legal-rational system of legitimacy that has yet to take root is associated with leaders that have been installed by the United States and have presided over and benefitted from massive corruption. Of course, as Machiavelli noted, in the absence of legitimacy a monopoly or at least preponderance of coercive power will do, but authoritarian systems work best in countries that are homogenous and cut off from the international community, which is precisely the opposite of Afghanistan. A prisoner of its geography surrounded by outside powers vying for influence. How, then, can it succeed?

Current US strategy is to continue building the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) and to encourage Taliban reconciliation with the government, while quietly maintaining a small number of forces devoted to counter-terrorism on the ground and in the air. It is estimated that the force loses 33% of its members on a yearly basis. If building the ANDSF is to provide the Afghan government with a better coercive capability, it is not working so far. Taliban reconciliation has been going on now for 17 years in one form or another, but it does not work well when large numbers of the northern minority groups believe the Taliban to be a Pakistani puppet while many southern Pashtun believe the Afghan government to be an illegitimate foreign puppet. Of course, governments always pursue strategies that are shaped by their own bureaucratic strengths and internal political dynamics, so it is natural that the best the United States has come up with is a strategy led by the Department of Defense that relies heavily on military training and foreign military sales. The only approach less likely to succeed would be one where the US military withdrew in favor of outsourcing security to a private company run by Westerners on behalf of an Afghan government with limited legitimacy.

The United States fumbled its opportunity to change Afghanistan profoundly for the better during 2001-2004. The mistakes we made then cannot be easily unmade. Afghanistan needs constitutional reform to bring about an improved electoral system and/or establish some other basis for legitimacy based on traditional Afghan sources. It needs a major anti-corruption campaign, effective service delivery, and national security institutions that see themselves as protectors of the people and not just an ethnolinguistic group or political faction. It also needs some breathing space from its meddlesome neighbors. None of these changes are coming, but the United States is reluctant to abandon Afghanistan, having invested so much blood and treasure there already. Most likely, we will soldier on in Afghanistan, following failing strategies until US citizens finally say “enough.”

So What Should Be Done

The entire Afghan electoral system must be recalibrated, but it is also worth asking the uncomfortable question if representative democracy is a proper political system for Afghanistan? In the Chatham House’s excellent analysis of the 2014 Presidential Election Assessment they suggest that: “Not only has the electoral system therefore failed to meet expectations of a timely and transparent transfer of power, it has also raised wider concerns. An immediate problem is uncertainty about new government structures, personnel and influence in the context of an ill-defined dual leadership system that divides power between the presidency and the chief executive’s office. In the longer term, there is a question mark over the future of democracy in Afghanistan.”[1]

Probably the best result of the 2014 Afghan Presidential Election is to draw lessons from it and these lessons should serve as an immediate mandate for changing a badly flawed system. Below I offer a few lessons that need to be considered.

First, the Afghan voter registration process has to be completely revamped. Theoretically, this was suppose to be a major focus of the Ghani-Abdullah “unity government,” but nothing significantly has happened. As suggested in an recent and excellent article by Scott Warden:

Voter registration has long been a weak point undermining the integrity of Afghan elections. The results of the 2009 and 2014 presidential elections and 2010 parliamentary elections were all highly contested because of mass ballot stuffing – with between 10 and 25 per cent of the ballots thrown out because of fraud by the Afghan electoral authorities. That ballot stuffing was enabled in part by the availability of excess ballot papers which had been sent to areas with no independent election observers – because they were insecure, or sometimes also because they had been politically captured by local strongmen. In the 2014 election, there were an estimated total number of voters of around 12 million and 23 million voter cards in circulation.[2]

Second and related to the voter registration, it’s been decades since the country has had a proper census performed. I understand the controversies over a census. The United States gave Kabul millions of dollars on two different occasions to conduct a proper countrywide survey, but it was never completed. While Kabul blamed security concerns for the lack of conducting a proper census, others believe that Kabul’s failure to conduct a census probably related to ethnic issues. 

Having an accurate census could help begin a needed change not only for presidential elections but also legislative elections. There is no question that the SNTV has been a disaster for the construction of a true Afghan legislative body with a true constituency. The census could be the mainstay of creating legislative districts that could result in legislative candidates having a true constituency and would eliminate an electoral process where the vast majority of Afghan electorate votes for losing candidates. In addition, a census would allow at least a first-order defense against inflated voter registration and fraudulent votes coming from certain districts.

Third, if Afghanistan is to become a true representative democracy, the political party system in the country needs to be strengthened. This is especially crucial for the Wolsi Jirga elections but also presidential elections.  Political parties, especially if they are not tied exclusive to ethnicity, afford the public an idea of what candidates’ main positions on issues converge upon.  This is presently sorely absent in Afghanistan.

While candidates within a party will surely have differing views on many important issues, political parties are usually developed around a range of political beliefs that can help guide a voters’ perspective concerning different candidates. 

The Chatham House argues that “[t]he 2014 process largely broke down because of political pressure before the IEC and ECC had completed the ballot counting and auditing. The ensuing crisis demonstrated the absence of credible and impartial mechanisms for dealing with electoral fraud or political tensions.”[3] Artificial time deadlines should be eliminated in favor of processes that are truly transparent and comprehensive.

Fourth, the government should institute an extensive program of training for election workers and their work needs to be monitored by both internal and international election observers.  To the extent possible and feasible, each polling place should have an objective election observer.  While this is an onerous process, for sure, it needs to be implemented especially for the next presidential election that is scheduled for April 2019.

While it is also very difficult to institute major political changes during time of conflict, especially with the Taliban insurgency seems to get stronger, it is critical that mechanisms be put in place that allow for fair voting in restrictive areas. This will require a larger ANDSF presence at polling centers.

In conclusion it would be difficult to find election results in any democratic country that could compare to the results of the 2010 legislative and 2014 Afghan Presidential Election. Afghanistan with the assistance of the international community must take a very serious look at its election procedures at all levels and seriously reform them.  In the absence of such reform, the door is wide open for more fraud and illegitimate results in Afghan elections.

Thomas H. Johnson is the Director of the Program for Culture and Conflict Studies at the Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA.

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[1] Noah Coburn, “Afghanistan: The 2014 Vote and the Troubled Future of Elections,” p.2.

[2] Scott Worden, “Afghanistan Election Conundrum (12): New voter registry too good to be true,” August 28, 2018,

[3] Noah Coburn, “Afghanistan: The 2014 Vote and the Troubled Future of Elections,” p. 7.