Afghanistan: failed transformation, death of democracy or hope for reform?

2015 is supposed to mark the start of Afghanistan’s “Transformation Decade,” notes a prominent analyst. But if the country is to even get to 2015 in one piece, its new leaders must act fast to correct course after the failed transformation of the last decade, Ahmed Rashid writes for the New York Times:

On Sunday, after months of bitter wrangling, the two leading candidates in Afghanistan’s presidential election agreed to form a national unity government. Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun technocrat, is to be president, and Abdullah Abdullah, a former foreign minister of mixed Tajik and Pashtun descent, is to be chief executive, a newly created post akin to prime minister. …The four-page joint agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah calls for convening a loya jirga, a traditional gathering of tribal representatives and elected district councilors, in the next two years in order to amend the Constitution to reflect the recent creation of the chief executive post.

But a loya jirga should be called as soon as possible, so as to promptly give constitutional cover to the power-sharing agreement between Mr. Ghani and Mr. Abdullah. The assembly should also discuss how the present presidential system, which is highly centralized, could be improved and how electoral reforms can be made to prevent future vote-rigging. And the gathering should be convened before the parliamentary elections scheduled for next year: This would allow the legislators who are elected then to have some of the legitimacy that is lacking at present.

NY Times

NY Times

“Death of democracy” is the phrase that has gone viral on social media among young Afghans since the September 21 announcement of a deal between the country’s two presidential election rivals, according to Afghan analyst Helena Malikyar:

Afghans celebrated the end of a deadlock that had plagued their country’s April 5 presidential elections because of the tremendous adverse effects that the impasse had brought onto the nation’s economy, security, and the function of the entire state apparatus.

However, the political deal that entails the formation of a “government of national unity” by rival presidential candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, is widely seen as a setback in the country’s process of democratisation. By brushing aside people’s votes, the political elite’s deal has disenchanted ordinary citizens and has shaken their confidence in the democratic process

Appointments will be key to everything, both in terms of how power is split and wielded and what sort of government Afghanistan is to get, Kate Clark writes for the Afghanistan Analysts Network:

The deal keeps repeating that appointments will be on merit, but that is something that has proved very difficult up until now. In Afghanistan, positions are often considered as ‘spoils’ and a means of rewarding supporters; patronage underpins power and authority. What has enabled the government so far to nevertheless survive has been the large inflows of foreign capital and foreign military support, but both are already tailing off. A united government will already have difficulty coping with all the problems Afghanistan faces. A weak and contested administration could well find those problems overwhelming.

Credit: NDI

Credit: NDI

But the National Democratic Institute (NDI)* welcomed the conclusion of the 2014 presidential electoral process and the political agreement that enables the first democratic transfer of power in Afghanistan’s history.

“The establishment of the national unity government provides a critical framework for political leaders to work in tandem to address the country’s political, economic and security challenges,” the group said, and it also commended the new government’s plan to form a special commission on electoral reform:

The commission should examine the root causes of serious flaws in the electoral process and offer recommendations for reforms that, if adopted, could promote Afghan confidence in the country’s electoral and political institutions. Such reforms could include constitutional, legislative, operational and institutional aspects as well as accountability mechanisms. Political will must be exercised and adequate resources allocated to implement such reforms. 

The Middle East Institute’s Louis R. Hughes Lecture Series this week hosted a panel discussion exploring the role of democratic governance in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (above). Have the conditions been right within these countries for democracy to take root? Has it been given a fair chance to succeed? Should it be held to different standards than democracy in the West? Experts Hassan Abbas (National Defense University), Sarah Chayes (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Joshua White (Stimson Center), and Moeed Yusuf (United States Institute for Peace) consider these questions, as well as whether future reforms could improve the efficacy of the existing governments in both countries.

* NDI’s election assessment mission fielded 100 Afghan staff observers in 26 provinces for the April first round elections and the June presidential runoff. The Institute mobilized 25 international and 25 Afghan observers to monitor the presidential runoff audit. The NDI mission was informed by a pre-election assessment the Institute conducted in December 2013. NDI supported the efforts of multiple domestic monitoring groups that mobilized thousands of citizen monitors for the two elections and the comprehensive audit. The Institute will issue a final report on the 2014 elections, including recommendations to strengthen the electoral process, in the near future.  

Questioning Mexico’s dubious reforms

krauzeHow is it possible that the most important set of governmental reforms in decades has aroused so much enthusiasm abroad and yet so much rejection in Mexico? How is it that, while the groundbreaking reforms were approved by a two-thirds majority of Congress, ordinary Mexicans affirmed in a poll that they believe their country is moving in the wrong direction? asks historian Enrique Krauze, the author of “Redeemers: Ideas and Power in Latin America:”

Some observers have compared the scope of Mexico’s reforms with American legislation to combat monopolies initiated by Theodore Roosevelt early in the 20th century, he writes for the New York Times:

President Enrique Peña Nieto, in the 21 months he has been in office, has set limits on the state’s longstanding monopoly on the extraction, production and distribution of oil, gas and electricity by permitting private investment; he has diminished the power of the telecommunications giants Telmex and Televisa by opening the door to competition; and he has compelled the huge National Union of Education Workers to accept reforms that prohibit the sale or inheritance of teaching positions and that introduce compulsory exams to evaluate teachers.

“Although Mexico has now opened up its economy and operates under an electoral democracy, there remains one reform that could be more vital than all the others: full establishment of the rule of law,” notes Krauze. “Without sufficient judicial controls and punishment for the authors of crime and corruption, the Mexican people will never be able to believe in a better future.”


Workers vs. Maduro: Venezuela cabinet shakeup plays to factions

vzla chavez maduroThe political factions holding up President Nicolas Maduro appear to each have won a slice of power with a Cabinet shuffle that breaks up the control one man held over Venezuela‘s oil and economy, Associated Press reports:

After months of foreshadowing a big shake-up, Maduro announced late Tuesday that he was sidelining his most powerful minister, Rafael Ramirez, dividing his authority among appointees favored by the different groups that jockey for power within his administration. Ramirez, a fixture of the socialist South American country’s 15-year socialist revolution, leaves his multiple roles of top economic adviser, oil minister, and president of the state-run oil giant PDVSA.

The reshuffling solidified the power of the family of Maduro’s mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez. Asdrubal Chavez, an engineer and cousin of the late president, will step in as oil minister. The populist leader’s son-in-law, Jorge Arreaza, keeps his appointed role as vice president.

Alberto Ramos, a senior analyst at Goldman Sachs in New York, said the reshuffle would not be enough to bring about the broad economic change the country needed, the FT reports:

“What we see is policy paralysis,” he said. “We do not see the adoption of the measures necessary to address the growing sources of macroeconomic pressures.”

A workers’ standoff with Maduro —a former union leader himself — has turned the once-model city of Ciudad Guayana into a crucial battleground for the socialist government as it faces economic meltdown and political infighting within the Chávez movement, Nick Miroff writes for the Washington Post:

Planners from MIT and Harvard came to lay out the streets. Loans from the World Bank helped finance the dams. The city grew to more than a million residents. The steelmaking company at the core of the Ciudad Guayana project, Sidor, produced a record 4.3 million tons before it was nationalized by Chávez in 2008. Today, most of its furnaces sit cold, deprived of raw materials, new technology and reliable labor. The last contract for its 14,000 steelworkers expired four years ago.

When it was founded, Ciudad Guayana and its state-run heavy industries were Venezuela’s best hope for breaking the country’s overwhelming dependence on crude oil exports. It had all the right ingredients: iron ore, bauxite and gold; timber and farmland; and huge rivers to supply cheap hydropower for smelters and factories.

“Venezuela’s foreign reserves are falling fast, down 32 percent since 2012, leaving the government more and more reliant on oil-backed loans from China,” Miroff notes.

vzlachavezA member of Venezuela’s Socialist Party has rolled out a variation of the “Lord’s Prayer” to implore beloved late leader Hugo Chavez for protection from the evils of capitalism, Reuters reports:

“Our Chavez who art in heaven, the earth, the sea and we delegates,” red-shirted delegate Maria Estrella Uribe recited on Monday at the PSUV party Congress.  “Hallowed be your name, may your legacy come to us so we can spread it to people here and elsewhere. Give us your light to guide us every day,” she said in front of an image of Chavez.

“Lead us not into the temptation of capitalism, deliver us from the evil of the oligarchy, like the crime of contraband, because ours is the homeland, the peace and life forever and ever. Amen. Viva Chavez!” she exclaimed to applause.


Putin’s ‘good cop claim rings hollow’ as NATO plans new bases

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko promised on Wednesday to work on a ceasefire plan to end the separatist conflict in the east of the country following talks with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin, the FT reports:

After two hours of bilateral talks in the Belarusian capital Minsk, the leaders gave no details of what the plan might look like and there was no indication on how the pro-Russia rebels in eastern Ukraine might respond.

The positive spin from Russia and Ukraine doesn’t amount to much, according to Fredrik Erixon, director of the European Center for International Political Economy in Brussels. All the talks produced was an agreement to hold more meetings, he told Bloomberg.

“The Kremlin’s long-term strategy is to destabilize Ukraine — not to take over its territory but to keep it weak,” Erixon said by phone. “The notion that you reach a compromise deal with Putin through more talks, well, I just don’t see that.”

NATO’s secretary general announced that the alliance will deploy forces at new bases (Guardian) in eastern Europe for the first time as it responds to the Ukraine crisis, a move that will likely trigger a strong reaction from Moscow, says the Council on Foreign Relations:

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko agreed during talks in Minsk (NYT) on Wednesday with Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin that he will work on a cease-fire plan (FT) to end the separatist conflict in the east of the country, although he gave no details of what the plan may entail. Separatist rebels shelled a town in southeastern Ukraine on Wednesday (AP), raising fears of a counter-offensive on government-controlled areas of the region.

ukrainesolidarnoscStanford University’s Michael A. McFaul, President Obama’s former ambassador to Moscow, said Mr. Putin had frequently shifted between more pragmatic calculations and a nostalgia-tinged commitment to reviving Russian power, particularly over former Soviet territories like Ukraine.

“Putin has always had dual impulses, lamenting the collapse of the Soviet Union but also recognizing that Russia has to integrate in the wider world,” Mr. McFaul told the New York Times in a telephone interview.

What’s the end game for Putin here? PBS asked Steve Sestanovich, a Council on Foreign Relations fellow (above):

There’s a range of possibilities. He could be looking at a kind of permanent ferment in Eastern Ukraine, something like the support that Russia’s given over many years to separatists in Moldova, in Georgia and elsewhere. That’s not a really good outcome because it doesn’t get him off the hook with The West, it means a lot of these sanctions will probably stay in place for a long time.

A better outcome would be one in which he gets some kind of concessions from Poroshenko about the structure of Ukrainian politics, some kind of acknowledgement that there has to be decentralization. Poroshenko has offered all of that, but he hasn’t offered to do it in a way that looks enough to Putin like a real victory.

Putin ‘gone too far to back down’?

“Moscow’s policy towards Ukraine in the past year has been a disaster in its own terms, giving Ukrainian identity and self-respect a boost as never seen before. Mr Putin is counting on other world leaders staring aghast at this brutal intra-Slav trial of strength, and deciding to stay well clear of it,” says Charles Crawford, formerly British Ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade and Warsaw, and a founder member of The Ambassador Partnership:

The eternal problem for diplomacy in situations like this is trying to talk about a deal on the level of pragmatic principle while both sides strain to create new facts on the ground. Any outcome that freezes the military situation in eastern Ukraine as it is today amounts to a win for the Kremlin: all Ukrainian territory not controlled by Kiev turns into “something other” and becomes the basis for eventual separatist claims.

“However, President Putin in turns knows that any outcome that allows Kiev to reassert control over all its territory other than Crimea is a Kremlin defeat,” he writes for the London Telegraph. “President Putin has not stepped into open illegal warfare just to lose.”

Putin’s ultimate goal – to bring Ukraine under Russian influence – “has moved further from his reach,” said Sestanovich, a National Endowment for Democracy board member.

And right now, he has to decide whether he is ready to settle for a lesser goal, because he has lost the opportunity to dominate Ukraine in the way that he once aimed for,” he told Deutsche Welle. “Now he has to decide whether he is prepared to live with a Ukraine that has significant institutional ties to the West.

CFR Analysis

“In looking to negotiations to end the crisis in Ukraine, the West should first make clear what steps NATO and the EU will undertake to support Ukraine and, if required, how sanctions on Russia will be intensified if it is unwilling to reach a fair settlement. Without this clarity, Putin may be reluctant to accept that the endgame has begun,” writes the National Interest.

“Ukraine doesn’t belong to NATO, so the alliance is not obligated by treaty to deploy ground troops or air support. NATO could provide weapons, but the fight would be the Ukrainians to win,” writes David Francis for Foreign Policy.

“Russia’s conflict with the West over Ukraine will grow more dangerous. Tougher US and European sanctions won’t change Russia’s approach to Ukraine, because President Vladimir Putin is determined that this country will remain in Russia’s orbit and eventually become the crucial addition to his “Eurasian Union”, an economic alliance that now includes Kazakhstan and Belarus,” writes Ian Bremmer for the Straits Times.

Track II initiative

In the interest of promoting greater dialogue between Americans and Russians about the crisis, the Carnegie Endowment’s Andrew Weiss recently joined a group of senior experts and former officials at a meeting in Finland. The preliminary results of this Track II initiative—specifically, a framework for a possible high-level discussion about a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Ukraine—are published online today by the Atlantic and by Kommersant in Russia.

The joint document emphasizes that both Russia and Ukraine will need to make significant compromises to ensure a lasting peace. Among other things, it calls for a UN-authorized peacekeeping mission under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, a redoubled effort to halt the illegal transfer of military equipment and personnel across the Russian-Ukrainian border, and agreed limits on the concentration of Russian and Ukrainian troops along the border.

China’s rule of law pledge rings hollow

chinacongressBeijing’s promises of progress toward rule of law ring hollow in light of the recently announced investigation of former security chief Zhou Yongkang, legal scholar Jerome Cohen writes for South China Morning Post:

Party leaders and their legal advisers have been struggling with the problem of how to achieve the rule of law for many years. Now, they claim, the fourth plenum will “provide a road map” that will “flesh out” the goals set forth in the decision so that, as the former director of research at the Supreme People’s Court recently stated, “you can both ‘see and feel’ the rule of law”.

[…] Many people inside and outside China, however, understand the Zhou case as an immediate, living refutation of the rule of law principles that the party is currently touting to the country and the world. If indeed there is now “equal justice”, they ask, why is it that many other leaders suspected of corrupt relations are also not being subjected to confinement and investigation in accordance with the party’s frightening shuanggui procedures? How can those disciplinary inspection procedures – the customary prerequisite to criminal prosecution of party members – possibly be consistent with the constitution and the Criminal Procedure Law? [As Donald Clarke has noted, shuanggui has no legal foundation—perhaps deliberately.]

[…] Of course, it must be said that these are extraordinary political cases and cannot be taken as representative of the normal administration of justice. But if violations of China’s constitution and the laws take place in such prominent cases, we can imagine the extent of violations in less visible ones. [Source]

Read more on the Zhou case’s implications for rule of law and on judicial reforms unveiled ahead of the plenum via China Digital Times.