The government in Kabul needs to demonstrate that the polls in 2014 will be honest and well-organised

As the turning point year of 2014 approaches, Afghanistan faces enormous military and political challenges. The former are well known: indeed, there is a robust international discussion of what will happen when U.S. and NATO troops draw down and responsibility for the country’s security passes to Afghan forces.

However, the latter — the political transition — receives much less attention, despite being equally, and possibly even more, important for the future of the country and the wider region.

President Hamid Karzai’s second term ends in May 2014, and the country will elect a successor. Demonstrably honest and transparent elections would establish the credibility of the system and thus make an enormous contribution to political stability. Failure would deal the government of Afghanistan a major blow.

Judging by the last two elections, the stage seems set for trouble. The 2009 and 2010 polls were chaotic and controversial at best, outright fraudulent at worst.

The government needs to overcome suspicions of a repeat performance in 2014 with immediate, credible measures. Clean elections are as crucial to Afghanistan’s stability as a well-trained army and professional police. And possibly more so: most governments have difficulty surviving without legitimacy; few can survive solely on the strength of their security forces.

The country’s leadership needs to demonstrate this time that elections are honest and well-organised, and offer all who wished to do so a chance to cast their ballot.

Suggested reforms

The recent report by my organisation, the International Crisis Group, carefully examined the flaws and problems in the organisation, oversight and supervision of previous elections, and we suggested technical, detailed fixes for 2014. We talked about the need to reform the Independent Election Commission (IEC), for example, as well as the importance of making the Electoral Complaints Commission a permanent body. We said President Karzai should declare a date for the presidentials as early as possible and resist any temptation to postpone them.

We discussed the role of the Supreme Court, the problems of election IDs and voter registration. We called for careful forward planning to ensure the security of the elections.

We also pointed out that the government has very little time to make these vital changes. Elections are due in little more than 18 months. Officials need to move away from circular discussions and earnest pronouncements and start taking concrete measures to ensure clean elections.

The leadership seems to understand these issues. President Karzai is on record as noting that the goal of a “stable, self-reliant and democratic Afghanistan” is still far from being achieved. He has stressed the need for truly accountable national institutions. Late last year he called for the coming elections to be “transparent, free, and insulated against fraud and interference.” And at the NATO summit in Chicago last May, he singled out the importance of the coming elections, saying they would have a “significant impact on the long-term stability and consolidation of democracy in Afghanistan.”

But talking about it is not enough. The country’s leadership has to act.

There are some reassuring signs: the day after our report was issued, the IEC promised that the date of the presidential elections, which has been the subject of much anxious speculation, would be announced next month [now set for April 5, 2014]. This is an important first step in a long process.

Ultimately, the best guarantee of Afghanistan’s stability is its ability to ensure the rule of law during the political and military transition in 2013-2014. If the leadership fails at this, the coming crucial period will at best result in deep divisions and conflicts within the ruling elite that the Afghan insurgency will exploit. At worst, it could trigger extensive unrest, fragmentation of the security services and perhaps even a much wider civil war.

Some possibilities for genuine progress remain — and we have to remain hopeful — but the window for action is narrowing.

(Louise Arbour is President of the International Crisis Group, www.crisisgroup.org)

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