During the past week, many voices have raised questions about the negotiated agreement resolving the disputed election in Afghanistan. Although the agreement was lauded in some quarters, others have asked whether the agreement will last or whether the parties are in fact fully invested in the power-sharing arrangement. My question is about why the vote count wasn’t announced—and about what that means for the legitimacy of the democratic process in the election.
There is an inherent tension between transparency and secrecy in negotiation, particularly in high-stakes political situations. The strong association between full transparency and democracy in the American public’s imagination has only grown more inextricable as our awareness of own government’s covert activities has deepened. The assumption seems to be that if the parties aren’t sharing information with the public, there must be something amiss about what is being discussed behind closed doors.
As a blanket generalization, the equating of democracy with transparency is flawed and often unhelpful for negotiation in political situations. I have often been publicly critical of those who call upon full transparency of negotiations in the name of democracy. On tough political issues, negotiations at times must occur behind at least a semi-opaque veil of secrecy. Leaders need insulation from outside forces in order to be able to speak more openly and truthfully with one another; otherwise, their fear of anger or immediate backlash from their constituencies would constrain the options that they might put on the table, and they might feel pressured to take a hard line, failing to come to any agreement at all even when an agreement might be better for the vast majority of stakeholders on all sides.
But while negotiations in the political realm demand some level of secrecy, democracy demands sufficient openness to ensure legitimacy. To the extent that parties not present at the negotiation are stakeholders—as voters in an election certainly are—the negotiators must consider the necessity of getting buy-in from those stakeholders, which requires evidence that their interests were considered and incorporated. Elections, in particular, are the one area in which voters choose to go to the ballot box—which, in the case of the Afghan election, often required taking a huge risk—and therefore should see the evidence that they in fact had a powerful and direct say in the result. This, in turn, should inspire confidence that the leaders they voted for can themselves be entrusted with negotiations.
So while I often decry calls for total transparency with respect to high-level political negotiations, I am deeply troubled by the decision to resolve the Afghani election dispute by a mutual decision of the two contending for the presidency (and perhaps external parties, as well) to keep the vote totals secret. Regardless of assurances from the United States, this decision undermines efforts to build democracy in Afghanistan by making secret a necessary component of the democratic process—the very election results themselves! It might even give the impression to some cynics that international actors conspired with Afghani elites to smooth things over so that these elites can continue to hold power, and so that western powers could continue to exercise control and dominance over Afghanistan. Imagine if a closely-contested election in the United States ended by the two top candidates mutually declaring a victor and never releasing the results, and simply announcing that one of the contenders would be the other’s Chief of Staff. It would be a complete betrayal of both candidates’ supporters and their financial contributions and efforts—not to mention call into question the mandate of the candidates themselves.
In many of the most contentious political negotiations—domestic and international—we need to allow a zone of privacy and secrecy to give our leaders the space to reach a deal, trusting that they have their constituencies’ interests in mind. But when it comes to a negotiation over an election outcome—something that goes to the heart of the voters’ interests and the legitimacy of the democratic election system itself—keeping the results secret negates assertions of democracy, and undermines the legitimacy of negotiation as a dispute resolution mechanism as well.