Put Democracy First in Afghanistan
Put Democracy First in Afghanistan
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Pakistan’s Mass Deportation of Afghans Poses Risks to Regional Stability
Op-Ed / Asia 4 minutes

Put Democracy First in Afghanistan

In the midst of yet another harsh winter, the vast majority of Kabul inhabitants are without power, except for a few hours every second or third day. Since the fall of the Taliban, despite huge amounts of international money spent on overhauling civic infrastructures, material improvements have lagged, bringing little relief to the daily life of a largely dispirited population who lack basic commodities and struggle with soaring prices.

Yet, the city is bustling, with streets streaming with people. Girls in white head scarves and black gowns head for school under huge billboards advertising the latest brands of mobile phone. Little boys run down the slopes flying their kites. And the sound of music, a vital component in Afghan life, floats in the air. Indeed, a sharp contrast with the authoritarian and anguishing regime imposed by the Taliban.

The situation in Kabul is paradigmatic of the contradictions still embedded in Afghan society. During my last visit there, in December 2005, on my final leg as Chief Observer of the EU Election Observation Mission, I made the case for democracy-building, and it is precisely here that today's London conference on Afghanistan needs to focus.

The "Afghanistan Compact" expected to emerge from this meeting will symbolically launch the post-Bonn era. The process set in motion by the 2001 Bonn Agreement has come to an end: a new constitution has been promulgated, and a President has been democratically elected, as have Parliament and Provincial Councils across the country. The next step will require a three-pronged approach: developing democratic processes within state-building, fostering civic culture, and tackling the main risks to democratisation.

Efficient and accountable public institutions are crucial. The electoral system chosen for the recent elections - the Single Non Transferable Vote - apart from being extremely costly, blurs representation in Parliament, thus generally undermining the legitimacy of institutions produced under such a system. The relevant authorities should adopt a more suitable electoral system for the future to ensure political pluralism.

Just and fair representation alone, however, is not sufficient for establishing the rule of law. An enormous amount must be done 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 duly elected; now their role should be clarified and eventually reinforced, in particular vis-à-vis local governors directly appointed by the President.

The link between state and citizens also needs strengthening, first of all by enhancing national unity and reconciliation. This can be done, inter alia, by expanding public participation through recognition of the role of non-governmental actors, by dramatically improving the condition of women and by strengthening public and independent media outlets. The momentum created by 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 report regularly on progress made and whatever problems may have delayed results.

The main risk factors are strictly interlinked. Lack of good governance is not conducive to putting an end to the vicious circle of illegal activities that breed violence and corruption which, in turn, generate the law of silence and, finally, feed in a culture of impunity. The consolidation of networks of local power brokers and the perseverance of illegal armed groups in parts of the country are cause for 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 seems to agree 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. Because of the serious threat which the illegal drug economy poses to stability and democracy in Afghanistan, it is essential to promote a sincere and open-minded debate about it and to consider the merit of different ideas and approaches, including the proposal of licensed production of opium for medical purposes, with quotas as granted to many other countries.

An additional aspect that the post-Bonn compact should take into consideration is managing people's expectations. These should not be raised by promises that cannot be delivered, as happened after the 2004 Presidential elections when many anticipated their quality of life would rapidly change for the better but were cruelly disappointed. Moreover, suspicion about malpractices, corruption and waste may lead to further disillusionment and hence to disengagement. An Independent Democratisation Monitoring Unit - composed of representatives from the government, the UN, the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission and other relevant civil society actors - should be created to make periodic comprehensive reviews and serve as an advisory body to the government on democratisation issues.

The London conference, while launching the second phase of the process initiated by the Bonn agreement, will renew the commitment of the international community in a mid-term timeframe. This engagement should induce the Afghan authorities to act in a concrete and accountable manner in pushing ahead sustainable reforms in the interest of the Afghan people.

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