The Afghan people risk their lives to vote in the country's elections. Unfortunately, their leaders and the international community have completely failed to honour their sacrifices.

Every time elections are held in Afghanistan, whether parliamentary or presidential, there follows a moment of cheer for upholding democracy. The ballot box is regarded as equivalent to democracy, as if by default.

“Today, we proved together we will uphold democracy, casting ballots without fear,” said the Afghan President Ashraf Ghani on Sunday when the parliamentary elections were held.

Yet, these elections, like all previous parliamentary or presidential polls since 2001, were marred by allegations of corruption, vote rigging, multiple voting, ballot box stuffing and the intimidation of voters.

So far 13,000 official complaints of irregularities in the electoral process have been registered and 60 people arrested over fraud. Violence has been widespread with more than 270 casualties, including 10 candidates and two members of the electoral commission killed.

Dysfunctional political processes and systems have often rendered the elections near-meaningless and disregarded people’s votes.

Daily terrorist attacks, high levels of poverty and unemployment and rampant corruption across the country have made it hard for democracy to take root in Afghanistan.

There is no denying that the people of Afghanistan are thirsty for change. They long for security and stability. 

At every election they brave the highly dangerous security conditions, stand in long queues and put their trust in their leaders. And time and again the leaders fail them, promoting instead their own personal or group ambitions.

It is true that the main requirements of democracy are defined as participation and opposition. In other words freedom of expression, the right to vote, the right of the political leaders to compete, and the freedom to form and join political organisations.

It is also true that most of these elements exist in some form in Afghanistan today. So what is causing such a failure of democracy?

A cluster of failures

First of all, drastic inequality can seriously affect both participation and opposition. Extreme inequality in the distribution of key elements such as income, wealth, status, knowledge and military power are, according to prominent American theorist of democracy Robert Dahl, “equivalent to extreme inequalities in political resources”.

Poverty in Afghanistan has significantly increased over the past decade according to the World Bank and a staggering 55 percent of the population are now living below the national poverty line.

“Few Afghans have access to productive or remunerative employment. A quarter of the labour force is unemployed, and 80 percent of employment is vulnerable and insecure, comprising self-or own account employment, day labour, or unpaid work,” says the World Bank.

According to the same report, just over 54 percent of young Afghans (in the 15-24 age group) are literate while 42 percent are neither in employment, education, or training.

Secondly, development experts have been warning us that these issues have become endemic in Afghanistan for two overriding reasons: continuing conflict and lack of good governance.

The continued conflict has an internal and an external angle.

Externally, Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) is accused of providing direct military and intelligence aid to both the Taliban and the vicious Haqqani network, giving its leaders a safe haven. Conventional wisdom follows that without ISI support these groups could not have carried out complex attacks nor sustained their operations over such a long period.

Internally, the security and intelligence apparatus in Afghanistan has been dysfunctional, unable to deal effectively with the ensuing conflict. It is riddled with corruption and division. It lacks a comprehensive strategy and capable leadership.

And yet we see President Ghani appointing a strikingly young former ambassador, Hamdullah Mohib, as the new national security advisor.

Mohib has no experience in national security. During two controversial presidential elections in 2009 and 2014 he was one of President Ghani’s social media campaign aides. It was from there that he was promoted to the level of ambassador and now to arguably one of the most sensitive, and significant, posts in the government.

Lack of good governance and ensuing corruption are both the making of internal political players. They are blocking development and political progress. 

Transparency International ranks Afghanistan near-bottom of its Corruption Perceptions Index for 2017. It says these issues threaten the country’s state-building process.

The third reason for the failure of democracy in Afghanistan is that the process of political transformation has been part of a US plan. It has not developed from within Afghan society.

American officials have always had the final determining role in every presidential election since 2001. In order to give a semblance of stability they have patched up differences at the last minute and negotiated deals – and essentially compromises.

In fact, not just in Afghanistan but in many parts of the world US foreign intervention strategy has, for decades, comprised a military and a political component, promising to build democracy.

We have many examples of US foreign interventions but not even one case of creating a successful democracy in the aftermath.

Democracy, a highly contested term and a very complex political structure, does not end at the ballot box.

A key characteristic of democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences and demands of all its citizens; an element that is sadly missing in Afghanistan.

Afghan politicians and the international community are equally responsible for failing the people of Afghanistan.

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