Put democracy first in Afghanistan

Emma Bonino
30 January 2006

While Afghan leaders and international donors gather in London this week to discuss Afghanistan's future, Kabul is in the grip of yet another harsh winter, and most of the city's inhabitants are without power, bar a few hours every second or third day. Although huge amounts of international money have been spent on civic infrastructure since the fall of the Taliban, material improvements have lagged behind, bringing scant relief to a largely dispirited population, who lack basic commodities and struggle daily with soaring prices.

Yet the city is bustling, and the streets stream with people. Girls in white headscarves and black gowns head for school under billboards advertising the latest brands of mobile phone. Little boys run down the slopes flying kites. And music – a vital component in Afghan life – floats in the air. The contrast with life under the Taliban's authoritarian regime is sharp.

Kabul's situation is paradigmatic of the contradictions still embedded in Afghan society. In December 2005, during my last visit there as Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission (EU EOM), I made the case for democracy-building in Afghanistan, and it is precisely on this that the London conference needs to focus.

The "Afghanistan compact" expected to emerge from this meeting will symbolically launch the post-Bonn era. The initial rebuilding process set in motion by the 2001 Bonn agreement has come to an end: a new constitution has been announced, and a president has been democratically elected, as have the parliament and provincial councils across the country. The next phase requires a three-pronged approach: developing democratic processes within state-building; fostering civic culture; and tackling the main risks to democratisation.

Also by Emma Bonino on openDemocracy:

"Real hopes for Afghanistan" (November 2005)

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Democracy's building blocks

Efficient, accountable public institutions are crucial. The electoral system chosen for the recent elections – the single non-transferable vote – is not only extremely costly, but it also blurs representation in parliament, and thus undermines the general legitimacy of institutions it produces. In future, a more suitable electoral system is needed to ensure political pluralism.

Just and fair representation alone is not sufficient for establishing the rule of law. Much work will be required to protect basic human rights, guarantee freedom of expression, set up an independent and credible judiciary, create checks and balances that properly define the powers of each institution, and promote political party politics and other forms of "organised" political activity. The time has also come for a certain degree of decentralisation. Provincial councils have been elected; their role should now be clarified and eventually reinforced, in particular with regard to local governors directly appointed by the president.

The link between state and citizens must be strengthened, first of all by enhancing national unity and reconciliation. Here, an essential step will be to expand public participation, through recognising the role of non-governmental actors, dramatically improving the condition of women and by strengthening public and independent media outlets. The momentum gained from the recent elections should be used to pursue civic education in order to make citizens fully aware of their rights and duties, as well as the authorities' goals and timelines. Government and parliament should make regular progress reports, detailing any problems that may have delayed results.

Overcoming obstacles to democracy

The main risk factors to democratisation are tightly interlinked. Lack of good governance impedes the termination of the vicious circle of illegal activities that breed violence and corruption, which in turn generate the law of silence and, finally, feed a culture of impunity. The consolidation of networks of local power brokers and the perseverance of illegal armed groups in parts of the country contribute to instability.

Moreover, pervasive opium and heroin production casts a long shadow over the country's future, carrying the risk of permanently affecting politics, crippling society and distorting the economy of an already fragile state, while maintaining a "narco-elite" which finds itself increasingly at odds with the surrounding poverty.

Though everybody apparently agrees that the illegal revenue must be decreased, few seem to accept the fact that this will not happen as long as farmers remain the principal focus of counter-narcotics strategies. The illegal drug economy poses a serious threat to stability and democracy in Afghanistan, so it is crucial to promote a sincere and open-minded debate about it, and to consider the merit of different ideas and approaches. This debate must not exclude the possibility of licensed opium production for medical purposes, with quotas granted as in many other countries.

The post-Bonn compact should also carefully consider managing people's expectations. Undeliverable promises must be avoided, so as not to reproduce the cruel disappointment that occurred after the 2004 presidential elections, when many anticipated that their quality of life would rapidly change for the better. Furthermore, suspicion about malpractices, corruption and waste can lead to disillusionment and hence to disengagement. An independent democratisation monitoring unit – composed of representatives from the government, the UN, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) and other civil society actors – should be created to make periodic comprehensive reviews and serve as an advisory body to the government on democratisation issues.

While launching the second phase of the process initiated by the Bonn agreement, the London conference will also renew the commitment of the international community over the next five years. This engagement should induce the Afghan authorities to act in a concrete and accountable manner in pushing ahead sustainable reforms in the interests of the Afghan people.

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