The Afghan Honeymoon: Why Post-Election Optimism Won’t Last

Ghani
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his wife Rula Ghani. President Ghani has been pressured to limit his wife’s public role. Source: Massoud Hossani/AP, File/nbcnews.com

The international community has recently showered Afghanistan with much praise. Yet, despite the handful of developments that call for celebration, the nation’s future is nonetheless littered with obstacles for both the Afghan government and its constituents. The Presidential election this June between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah deteriorated into an acrimonious stalemate, as the latter accused Ghani of rigging an estimated 2 million out of the 8 million votes “cast.” Fortunately, the two contenders reached a power-sharing agreement before the crisis escalated: Ghani as President, and Abdullah as his Chief Executive Officer, the equivalent of a Prime Minister.

This peaceful transition of power seems to usher in a new, hopeful era departing from the nation’s turbulent past. In particular, the electoral controversy surrounding the latest election almost bordered on ethnic violence and a military coup. Because Abdullah drew his strongest support from the Tajik minority group, his grievances incited greater ethnic divisions when “followers of two powerful former warlords on opposite sides of the campaign clashed on the outskirts of Kabul,” according to the New York Times. In addition, Afghan officials close to security forces threatened to form an interim government, “amount[ing] to a coup – though no one is calling it that.” Those officials claimed that they simply wished to pressurize both sides into resolving the impasse.

Optimists perceive the successful resolution to the electoral crisis as the preface to more promising changes. Economically, even though the electoral controversy stalled growth, the people have placed their hopes for an economic jumpstart based on Ghani’s experiences as a World Bank official and as the Afghanistan’s former Finance Minister. Socially, Ghani seems to be challenging the status quo, bringing his wife Rula under public limelight as he declared his intention to give her, along with women and youth, “a wide participation in my government,”. In contrast to the former first lady, Zeenat Karzai, Rula has taken on a national leadership role, encouraging Afghan women to “use [their] skills outside the home” during a speech on International Women’s Day in March.

Nevertheless, doubts remain. For one, the Ghani administration began on the wrong footing. The widely broadcasted controversy of the ballot-box fraud immediately called into question the legitimacy of the newly-elected government. Is the new government well-equipped to tackle Afghanistan’s mounting problems?

Not quite yet. The euphoria that the public and international observers are currently experiencing is what political scientists like Robert Erikson and Kent Tedin call “the honeymoon phase.” During this phase of initial optimism, the President-elect enjoys a surge in popularity and confidence right after inauguration. The necessary corollary to this concept lies in the inevitable drop in support for the government, perhaps due in part to unrealistic expectations. Eventually, President Ghani will disappoint his people, giving those with giddy euphoria a political reality check.

While power-sharing sounds like a good political compromise, the democratic system of checks-and balances between the executive and legislative branches will likely result in a stalemate between President Ghani and Prime Minister Abdullah. In fact, Abdullah’s allies already harbor suspicions toward Ghani. Besides, given the rocky start to the new regime, Ghani must now quickly reform the electoral system before next year’s parliamentary elections in order to restore government’s democratic legitimacy and to avoid the same political debacle.

In addition, Ghani’s attempt to empower women has met substantial resistance from his people. His wife’s Lebanese-American Christian identity leads many conservative critics to express skepticism about her social reforms. Hamida Asazai, a microfinance officer, commented, “A foreigner cannot feel the Afghan pain.” This resistance from the conservative segment of the population will likely limit Rula’s efforts to liberalize gender roles.

Moreover, because the electoral controversy has sidelined the government’s priority of economic growth, Ghani must now restart the weak economy. His task will be incredibly difficult– to spur development, to raise the standard of living, and to reduce the state’s fixation on foreign aid. His greatest problem – the plague of corruption – shackles him from implementing necessary policies. Indeed, corruption diverts a significant portion of the government’s revenue, which remains indispensible to development projects and economic reforms.

Granted, Ghani responded to the state’s notorious level of corruption by ordering an investigation of the Kabul Bank’s prosecutions for fraudulent loans, a gesture to keep even the elites punished for their misdeeds. However, keeping in mind the judiciary courts’ tendencies to avoid incriminating powerful, though guilty, elites, Ghani failed to signal his long-term commitment to his corruption reform. Will the judiciary courts expand the number of politically implicated defendants to impartially rule this case as necessary?

Finally, can the Ghani administration handle the Taliban? In fact, the emboldened insurgent group has exploited the electoral controversy to pursue its own agenda. Recently, it attacked vulnerable regions in Afghanistan and even orchestrated a suicide bombing near Kabul International Airport. Even though Ghani once worked on the transfer of military responsibilities from the US and thus understands the inner workings of the Afghan military, the unyielding Taliban now regards the new government as America’s new “puppets,” preferring to fight than to negotiate.

Indeed, while optimists busy themselves with celebrating the unity coalition and other achievements of the new Afghan government, they have yet to take sufficient time for a reality check. Ghani has in fact taken several progressive steps, but it is still too early to celebrate: this is only the first chapter in a new story for Afghan politics.