The South Asia Channel

The Vote That's More Than a Vote

According to most media sources, Afghan elections in 2014 are the story of 11 men -- or perhaps five, if a few unlikely candidates are overlooked. But while all international eyes are focused on which of the presidential hopefuls will win, for most Afghans this vote signifies much more than selecting a new leader. Scheduled for April 5, the elections will provide communities with an opportunity to renegotiate their relationships to both the national government in Kabul and various political leaders and parties, shaping relationships far beyond 2014. Most importantly, with the upcoming withdrawal of international troops, the polls are a vehicle through which Afghans can consolidate political and economic resources in the face of the potential coming instability.

Despite much of the current fanfare around the presidential campaigns is the fact that, in terms of government policy going forward, it really doesn't matter much which candidate wins. Lost in many of the discussions of the eleven candidates is just how similar they are. All are male from an older generation that came of age before and during the Soviet war. All have been part of Karzai's government at some point and have benefited greatly from the intervention, amassing both wealth and power. All have sought to create tickets that represent different social groups in Afghanistan, selecting vice-presidential candidates of various ethnicities or parties, to promote inclusiveness rather than a unified policy position. Admittedly, some are more technocratically gifted than others, but none have any real incentive to change the current system.

At the local level, this means that provincial and district powerbrokers are less concerned with candidates' promises of reform than with positioning themselves favorably during the broader shift in political and economic conditions that these elections portend; 2014 will be the year that Afghanistan begins to adjust to less direct external funding and a decline in the benefits of the economic bubble that has characterized the international intervention. Communities living close to Bagram Airfield, for example, are seeing a rise in unemployment as jobs on the base dry up, a decrease in community-oriented programs aimed at winning hearts and minds, and a drop in revenue from items that "fall off the truck on their way into the base" (fuel prices have been notoriously lower near the airfield than elsewhere over the past few years). The question for many is not simply "who will the next president be," but rather "how will we make ends meet during the coming period of political instability?"

To answer this question, and in some way compensate for the decline in revenue, local political leaders have been searching for new sources of economic and political power. In some cases, this has involved establishing new businesses, legitimate or otherwise. In others, local brokers have been using elections to consolidate their influence.

Here, the real prizes to be won are seats in the Wolesi Jirga (lower house), where parliamentarians have access to both government revenue and business connections in Kabul. With parliamentary elections currently scheduled for 2015, the 2014 elections are an important preparation ground for future political maneuvers. In many cases, this means carefully negotiating with presidential campaigns, in the hopes of appearing to be on the winning side regardless of who wins.

However brokers are also investing in the provincial council elections, occurring alongside the presidential race this year, but given only scant attention by international media. For those running for parliament, the provincial council elections are an opportunity to begin creating campaigns and political networks to gather votes for next year. Community leaders are even encouraging less influential allies to run. One wealthy young businessman, for example, is having his father run for provincial council in 2014, paving the way for his own parliamentary campaign on a promise of local, family ties between the community and the center. For others, particularly a younger generation of political leaders, provincial council positions are a place to gain some initial political experience, to "increase one's name," in preparation for a career in politics (for more on these stories and the importance of provincial council elections, see USIP's forthcoming Peace Brief "Looking Ahead: Why Provincial Council Elections Matter" available soon at www.usip.org). 

For all of these figures, 2014 is not the finish line for a series of political struggles, as the presidential vote is sometimes described in the international media, but an important moment of contestation over what the future of political power in Afghanistan will look like locally.

The good news for many outside observers is that while the elections of 2014 are sure to be corrupt and messy, of the eleven current candidates, none are likely to take to the hills with their militias if they lose. Most leaders at the national, and even provincial, level are invested in the current political system that, while corrupt and patrimonial, is nevertheless a system of sorts. The bad news is that those in power at present seem to have only nominal concern for the wellbeing of the communities that they represent. In an unstable political and economic landscape, the real story when looking back on the 2014 elections will be the way in which political leaders and communities used the vote to either consolidate their power or watch it erode.

Dr. Anna Larson is an Associate Research Fellow at the Post-war Reconstruction and Development Unit at the University of York, United Kingdom.  She worked in Afghanistan between 2004-2010, latterly leading research programs in governance for the Kabul-based Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit.

Professor Noah Coburn is a political anthropologist at Bennington College.  He has conducted research in Afghanistan since 2005 and is author of Bazaar Politics: Pottery and Power in an Afghan Market Town (Stanford University Press, 2011).

Their book Derailing Democracy in Afghanistan from Columbia University Press explores the ways in which internationally sponsored elections in Afghanistan have eroded democratic processes.

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