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Will the Unity Government Deliver for Afghanistan?

Will the Unity Government Deliver for Afghanistan?

| | 15 Oct 2014, 01:19 pm
Afghanistan may be rejoicing with the formation of a unity government after a month of political deadlock and uncertainty, but the same may not augur well for the country in the long run, says Sujeet Sarkar who works as an international advisor on governance and civil society and has authored the acclaimed book: In Search of a New Afghanistan.

Unity Governments are popular practices in some of the African countries confronted by warring ethnic faction and civil unrest.  Such arrangements bring the warring and rival ethnic leaders to sign up a patch-up deal in lieu of a piece of government, to cool off ethnic and political tensions. It is more of a power-sharing agreement to buy transient peace rather than a long-term democratic solution to form a strong and efficient Government.

In Afghanistan, this patch-up arrangement has come about to escape the recent electoral deadlock and the consequent unrest that nearly threatened a civil war.  The new unity government may have diffused the short-term tensions, but more than serving national interest it has clearly served the political aspirations of the rival candidates. It has also set a bad precedent, which possesses the danger of becoming the political order of the future. One wonders, if the key contesting candidates in Afghanistan will ever accept electoral defeat hereafter. Such unity, achieved at the cost of democratic meritocracy, however, is not tenable in the long run.

In Kenya, the development process came to a near grinding halt due to such a unity government, in the recent past.  Zimbabwe went through a similar turmoil in 2009.  And South Sudan is on the brink of having such a government and is likely to face the same music, despite being blessed with a  bounty of oil and mineral reserves. The final brunt has always been borne by the citizens who suffered the fallout of such power-sharing arrangements, which eventually failed to deliver and mostly ended in blame games.

In Afghanistan the current political arrangement may have given provisional stability, but the prevailing political tension has now shifted from the election scene to the power corridors of the newly formed government in Kabul.  This will consistently raise it head in the functioning of the new government and impede the pace and quality of decision making around public good.

By default, the unity government will split the bureaucracy vertically across two camps and the decision-making process across all levels of government would be hampered to a large extent. This doesn’t hold good for a country confronted with multiple levels of complex and diverse development challenges. So while it may have avoided the electoral row, it is set to choke the momentum of development process.

This is not going to improve governance either.  The international donor community has been frustrated with the malfunctioning of the administration for the last one-decade. For the second year in a row, Afghanistan falls at the bottom of Transparency International’s corruption perception index, tied with North Korea and Somalia. Afghanistan perhaps needed a president with a firm grip over power to deal with corruption with an iron hand.  With a divided administration and dilution of power, one wonders, if the new president can muster the focus and resolve to attack corruption.

Government with a dual or more commands may hold good for an evolved democracy, but conflict prone settings requires a Government with a single command of authority. This expedites the process of directing fast-track orders and assertive signals to multiple institutions on critical issues concerning terrorism, security, administration, etc.  This becomes all the more important for a conflict prone nation like Afghanistan, where the state is always in a state of exigency.

Besides, there is a crying need of policies and reforms around a wide range of issues like attracting FDI, social security, economy, peace, bilateral relationships, etc.  Afghanistan needed a firm and decisive government aggressively rolling out policies for public good.  However, the policy-making ability of the new unity government would be dented to a considerable extent with both the leaders trying to have his stamp of authority and influence on the same.  Political consensus building around each and every issue would be the order of governance and this would impede the policy-making ability of the new government. It is the last thing the citizens of this war-torn country expected after a grueling election, stretching over almost a year.

One may be accused of jumping the gun, before giving the new arrangement a fair chance in Afghanistan.  But a pragmatic assessment does not leave much to rejoice. Afghanistan has had a single command of authority, in its elected president, for more than one decade. All the institutions of the state have been organically geared towards functioning around a single command, because of its past history. To imagine that the same institutions will make a smooth transition to the dual power-sharing system, developed by the two rival camps, will be sheer naivety. It would surely require teething time to adapt to the new reality of a dual-power system. With a dwindling economy, alarming growth in poppy production,  and a resurgent Taleban threatening to take over certain parts of Afghanistan, it is a matter of grave concern as to how this teething period would affect development and security in Afghanistan.

That the unity government will carefully implement the decisions of the government, and fire on all cylinders, is equally improbable. With their political ambition set to ride the 2019 presidential election it is but obvious that both the camps would like to pitch their thinking differently on every issue, to preserve their political identity, hereon.

In fact in order to safeguard their political interests they would refrain from submitting themselves completely to the decision of the unity government. They have to look different because of their political compulsion. And this political difference is likely to increase with each passing year. It is no brainer that the growth and economy of the nation would be the final casualty.

At the outset there is likely to be a major scuffle over the appointment of key strategic positions such as peace chair, key political advisors, etc.  Critical issues (such as an ailing economy, relationship with Pakistan, engagement with Taleban, poppy eradication, advancing peace process, etc.), which cry for assertive and definitive direction from the new government, will hit a deadlock every now and then because of the simmering political and ideological differences, within the new Government.

Whether, both the camps would be able to resolve these differences by showing political maturity, contrary to Afghan politics, will remain an area of acid test for this newly formed government. Whether, they would stitch up a meaningful working formula, or allow the political tension to throttle the functioning of the new government, has to be seen.

Further, for the government to prosper, the role of a strong Opposition cannot be ruled out in any democratic dispensation. The role of a constructive and objective Opposition becomes all the more important in fragile settings, where the institutions of the state are nascent and are often not neutral. A strong Opposition’s demand for excellence and effectiveness of the government can hold them accountable. It also helps to balance out power and avoid the excesses, which lead to the abuse of power in such settings.  By co-opting the Opposition into the fabric of the unity government, the space of opposition has been completely wiped out in Afghanistan. This would severely influence the functioning of the government and undermine democracy, as a whole.

Even though the international analysts are busy fathoming the reason behind the acceptance of the unity government formulae in Afghanistan, it has a mark of US influence. It also needs to be analyzed why the Abdullah Abdullah camp resorted to accepting defeat last time, after almost leveling the same set of charges against the outgoing president, Karzai.  It is true that the US was not overtly intrusive in the recent election in Afghanistan. But that is only part of their larger strategy to facilitate the transition from a democratic government to a unity government in this embattled country.

Of late think tanks in Pentagon have been working overnight to test the hypothesis if a unity government is better suited to conflict-prone countries than a democratic government.  This sad realization has kicked in after the rise of ISIS and failure of the democratically elected Maliki government in Iraq.  The Pentagon strategist believes that a unity government has better chances of survival in a war-torn nation. Hence instead of rallying for a democratic government as the only solution they are indirectly influencing a unity government in such settings. By remaining silent in the entire Afghan election episode they have clearly expressed their choice to the two warring presidential candidates. 

Zeroing on best solution for the country and its citizens amid diverse political ideologies and opinions remains an arduous task. Giving concessions to competing candidates in the backdrop of power sharing arrangement further requires higher degree of political understanding and ability. It would be interesting to see how the balance of power pans out and the various institutions of the unity government interact among themselves.

This arrangement couldn’t have come at worse time. The US forces are packing up for an exit and the herculean task of providing security to Afghan citizens rests on the rudimentary Afghan army, in the backdrop of a resurgent Taleban. The economy of the country is reeling under serious problems and the misery of the common man is increasing with the sky rocketing inflation.

But as people in rural Afghanistan say, hope is the only way forward for this country embattled with terrorism and civil strife, for more than three decades.

Let us hope that the new government sets aside its inherent differences and ego tussles in the larger interest of Afghanistan and delivers for its struggling citizens. 

  (The views  expressed in this article are purely of the author and not of IBNS)

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