KABUL — The last time Afghanistan held national elections, in 2014, the result was a disaster. So widespread were charges of fraud and so tainted was the outcome that the country reached the brink of civil war. Then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry finally intervened, forcing the two main contenders to form a temporary government that has been wracked by internal divisions ever since.
In the wake of that debacle, elaborate efforts were made to avoid repeating it. Electoral reforms were proposed, debated and passed. Biometric voter-identification cards and electronic balloting methods were studied and tested. Discredited electoral officials were replaced. Finally a date was set: July 2018 for parliamentary elections, followed by a presidential contest.
But with the vote still eight months away, preparations have become poisoned by charges of political manipulation, ethnic bias, technical incompetence and endless delay. If the election falls apart, many Afghans fear that both the viability of their new democracy and the confidence of their international supporters will be in jeopardy.
"We still have not been able to build an effective democratic system. Every time we have an election, we have to reinvent it," said Mohammad Naeem Ayubzada, director of the Transparent Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent watchdog group. "The process has lost all credibility, but this election is the last card we can play. If we fail, we will lose everything we have worked for in the past 16 years."
President Ashraf Ghani and his aides insist that the parliamentary vote will take place as planned, although some concede the date may slip. They are desperate to preserve the aid that pays for much of the national budget and defense, and foreign donors view credible elections as a litmus test for future support.
But the longer elections are postponed, the longer both the executive and legislative branches will remain in legal limbo and political disarray. The national unity government's mandate expired last year, and the current parliament's term has been extended twice since elections were supposed to take place two years ago.
The absence of institutional legitimacy has opened the door to a frenzy of pre-election backbiting, strong-arming and finger-pointing by self-interested leaders. They include familiar names from past ethnic and political battles, disgruntled defectors from the Ghani government and founders of new political parties — some barely more than a leader and his best friends.
This phenomenon has become so destructive that in October, a surprisingly broad array of political groups, including former communists and conservative Islamists, formed a coalition and demanded that the government take solid steps to hold fair and transparent elections. They warned that unless a credible power transition takes place, the country could collapse.
"Nobody wants to go back to chaos. There is a great fear of a crisis like 2014 or worse, and this time no one would trust a Kerry kind of deal," said Rahmatullah Nabil, a former national intelligence chief who spearheaded the coalition and heads a new political party. "The government is weak, there is no balance of political forces, and the regional situation has totally changed. If we have another election like 2014, no one will be able to control it."
Concerns intensified in the past several months, when the election machinery became snarled in technical, political and bureaucratic problems. Leaked memos and abrupt firings embarrassed the government and revealed how ill-prepared it was to stage elections, despite significant foreign investment in attempts to make the process fraudproof.
One drama was a dispute over the performance of the national election commission and a second panel to oversee election complaints. Members were appointed a year ago, but reports persisted that they were making little progress and consumed by internal bickering. There were also allegations of pressure on members by Ghani's aides — a worrisome echo of 2014, when charges of biased commissioners tainted the process even before the vote.
The conflict came to a head in October when the election commission chairman, Najibullah Ahmadzai, was forced out for incompetence at strong international urging. In turn, Ahmadzai publicly accused aides to Ghani of trying to convince the other commissioners to get rid of him. He also declared that no election could be held in July because the public had lost faith in the process.
"What happened was illegal and unjustified," Ahmadzai said in an interview. He said several panel members told him they had been pressured to vote for his resignation. "We were a good team, and our aim was to hold transparent elections and restore the trust that was lost in 2014.
"I am a technocrat with no political ties, and I have done nothing wrong," he said. "We are working to build a democracy, but this is not democratic. Public trust is only going down and down."
A second long-simmering issue was whether and how to use technology to insulate the next election from fraud and error. Although there was a well-intentioned effort that fit with Ghani's technocratic reform agenda, it eventually succumbed to political disputes, unrealistic expectations and lack of technical capacity.
The first plan was to produce biometric national ID cards, but that died last year amid battles in parliament over whether to include ethnicity on each person's card, which might challenge various groups' claims of larger population share and importance.
A later proposal was to introduce electronic voter registration, polling and possibly vote-counting, after the 2014 tally was so marred by accusations of ballot-stuffing that all 7 million votes had to be recounted. But that idea proved too ambitious and costly, and in October the company that won the bid for biometric voter cards declared that it could not do the job after all.
Critics of the Ghani government said the entire electoral reform effort had been an utter failure. Some blamed the president for overreaching or even trying to sabotage the election to stay in power. Others said he had failed to push harder as the government grappled with other problems, letting deadlines slip and institutional credibility fade.
"A lot of money has been spent on electoral reforms. A lot of studies have been done and proposals made, and still we are worse off than 10 years ago," said Davood Moradian, president of the Afghan Institute for Strategic Studies. "Every pillar of the state is based on politics, not the constitution. The Taliban can't topple the government, nor can corruption, but there has to be a political transition. It is not the date that matters, it is the process, and there is no light at the end of the tunnel."
There is, however, a backup plan — albeit one that the Ghani government and its foreign backers strongly oppose. Some Afghans, notably former president Hamid Karzai, have called for a loya jirga, or traditional gathering of elders, to select a new leader or political path by consensus. But many others see that as a regressive step and an unacceptable substitute for the modern electoral process, no matter how flawed.
"This time the election will be very difficult, but it has to happen," said Sediq Siddiqi, a senior spokesman for the Ghani government, dismissing any possibility of a loya jirga. "The conditions are not ideal, and there may be fraud and other problems, but this is the people's will in our new Afghanistan."