Afghan elections: responding to the test

The recent elections in Afghanistan have been subject to widespread criticism. In the midst of the debate over how to react, the author assesses the implications for Afghanistan and the options for moving forward, based on his experience as an analyst and observer before and during the polls.


By Stephen Carter for

The results from the Afghan election are still to be finalised, but the process already presents a major headache for Afghanistan’s international backers. The preliminary evidence strongly suggests that large-scale, organised fraud took place, and was widespread enough that it could have an impact on the outcome even if Karzai wins by a significant margin. This is a key test: a moment when short-term crisis management and long-term concerns about state-building and the drivers of the insurgency collide, and a moment of truth for the revised international approach to Afghanistan. In these circumstances there are different options about how to respond, but the minimal approach of keeping low and ‘moving on’ is a false economy.

Final observer reports are not yet in, and it is difficult to get an accurate picture of all the individual cases, but there should be no illusions that large-scale fraud took place. European Union observation missions are rarely sensational but their latest press release speaks of a ‘very large number of irregularities’, ‘large-scale ballot box stuffing’, and more than half a million ballots from centres where 90 per cent or more of the votes were for a single candidate. According to data obtained from the campaigns more than half of the centres from Paktika province, whose results were included in the official tally, were listed by observers as having been closed on polling day. An IEC official from Kandahar described in person how he had witnessed every ballot box from two entire districts – Sharabak and Regestan – being systematically stuffed: ‘not one person’ had been able to vote. Reports from multiple sources suggest that an Afghan Border Police commander, Abdul Raziq, systematically stuffed large numbers of ballot boxes in neighbouring Spin Boldak and scattered votes for Karzai’s rivals on the roadside. In Helmand the number of votes cast at many centres defies all indications that turnout was very limited – in Lashkargah alone a few thousand voters seem to have generated around 55,000 ballots. This pattern is replicated in many areas in the south and east, with official turnouts of up to 108 per cent, as seen in one female voting center in Paktia that the IEC saw fit to include in the official results. The overall level of turnout, especially in the south, will be a key indicator of the credibility or otherwise of the final result.

The abuses were certainly not limited to supporters of Karzai – reports from Baghlan for example indicate intimidation and thousands of illegal ballots cast by one pro-Abdullah commander. But fraud in favour of the incumbent by all indications was on a much larger scale. And there are credible indications that senior figures, including government ministers, officials, and the president’s brother Ahmad Wali Karzai, were actively involved in organising abuses in the south and east. In Paktia for example the programme to create arbakai tribal militias seems to have been used to pay elders upwards of $4,000 apiece to support the president (possibly using American money). It is not impossible that Karzai genuinely won the election, but the level of abuse in his favour makes it difficult to tell.

Does fraud matter?

The question remains: does it matter? ‘This is Afghanistan’: we should not expect Scandanavian standards in a pre-industrial society, and we should not risk a crisis if they are not respected. Rather we should move on as fast as possible to the real business of reconstruction and fighting the insurgency. It is quite correct that conditions in Afghanistan are difficult, institutions are evolving, and that problems were inevitable. Millions voted, often with great courage, and merely adequate elections would be entirely acceptable. Nor should we be naive: for example, collective decision-making on voting is predictable in a largely tribal society, and in normal circumstances involves a genuine debate, at least among elders. Even Karzai’s effort to build a coalition of power-brokers – that have put him in debt to many former warlords – is also standard practice within Afghan politics. But the abuses observed went well beyond cultural issues and isolated incidents, to fraud on a scale that threatens the integrity of the elections as a whole. There is little point holding polls if problems are ignored regardless how serious they are – or rather it supports a view that the only point is the appearance rather than the reality of the process. It also asks us insidiously to accept the view that all this was inevitable, and to ignore the fact that with appropriate resources and political will much could have been done to mitigate the problem.

‘This is not about perfection: it is about basic legitimacy’

Although the international community may sometimes doubt its own rhetoric, the Afghan elections really matter. The point of holding them was not to instantly create some theoretical Jeffersonian democracy, but as a mundane practical tool to manage political tensions within the country in the least bad way possible and deliver some measure of accountability. This is not about perfection: it is about basic legitimacy. These polls are not the only way to do that, or perhaps even the most important, but they are the most visible.

The elections matter first of all because of their impact within Afghanistan. The immediate consequences are unpredictable. There is a genuine chance of a really destabilising crisis in the short term: Abdullah has repeatedly raised accusations of major abuses and has stressed he is not open to any compromise that would see him serve under Karzai. Delegations of elders have been visiting him complaining of fraud and demanding he not back down, and to judge from some of those in attendance this appears to be more than just stage-management. Sustained Iranian-style mass demonstrations or outright violence are probably unlikely, but certainly not impossible.

But the long-term impact is arguably a greater concern than any short-term crisis. Rather than generating legitimacy for the government, the political atmosphere will be increasingly soured as a result of the elections, with consequences not just for the political balance within the country but for the counter-insurgency effort as well. The perception of a subverted process will undermine the already fragile trust in elections, and shift assumptions away from using mobilisation of genuine constituencies and towards less democratic means of winning political influence. The elders of Sharabak already talk about cutting cooperation with the government if Karzai wins: it would be simplistic to talk about a direct causal link to the insurgency, but a contested election will certainly be a gift to the Taliban.

Above all there is the question of perceptions of accountability within the Afghan government, and the message that the acceptance of a result based on fraud would convey – whoever wins. There is supposedly a fresh international emphasis on governance: progress on these issues is a key part of the effort to improve the current prospects of success. The signal that would be sent about the seriousness of international intentions if there is not a strong, public reaction to the presumed fraud would be unambiguous. It would make clear that any threat of the international players taking a genuine stand on governance issues is safely neutered by concerns over short-term stability and the fear of undermining public support back home – even in the most critical and high-profile instances. If the international community can’t kick up a fuss about the elections, what are the chances of being taken seriously when it tries to press for action on other issues? It is hard to think of a worse foundation for the next five years. If the argument is being made that getting a grip on governance in critical to the strategy to turn things round in Afghanistan, the international community will have failed at the first hurdle.

Criticism back home

Finally, Afghanistan’s partners are right to be worried about public opinion in their home countries. The spectre of NATO troops defending a government elected amid widespread fraud has the potential to deeply undermine support for the deployments and should focus minds on both sides of the Atlantic. The argument that the mission is to defend the country and not the regime may be correct but many will not make the distinction. But simply managing perceptions in the face of the evidence is a losing game, and one that will do nothing to address the underlying problem.

The question still remains of how it is best to react. The overwhelming desire seems to be to keep out of the storm and rely on the electoral bodies to do their job. This is correct, in that it would be odd to fight for rule of law in the elections while bypassing the proper constitutional bodies of a sovereign state. But there are some important caveats. First of all, reliance on the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) must be accompanied by measures to make sure it can do the job. By all accounts it is doing admirable work but it must be given cast-iron political and material support, and be able to take as long as it needs to review the thousands of complaints submitted so far. It is likely to come under intense pressure if it looks like eliminating large quantities of votes – the IEC, which is widely reported to have a number of well-known Karzai allies on its staff (as well as some supporters of Abdullah), even more so. That pressure must be countered with some clear political messages.

The ECC must also be encouraged to cover the full spread of sites affected by fraud. Part of the problem has been the wide areas with few or no observers – often the most insecure districts where much of the fraud was apparently committed. It will be damaging if no action can be taken on the many centres where turnout and voting patterns are highly implausible, but no observers were present. The September 8 decree ordering a recount of votes from stations with 100 per cent turnout or 95 per cent or more support for a single candidate is welcome, but could go further – given that in relative secure Kandahar city (for example) a realistic turnout based on observer reports seems to have been no more than 15 per cent.

The work of the ECC and IEC will have to be exceptionally effective to restore the credibility of the polls.

If the political crisis looks like getting out of hand, there are various options for the Afghan government and its backers. If the final numbers indicated a second round, a decisive, clean win would at least restore some legitimacy to the process. Keeping it clean (and preventing violence) would be a considerable challenge. Otherwise a national unity government could provide a way of defusing the immediate crisis, even if it would not be without its challenges either. The alternative of simply pushing ahead is likely to simply defer that crisis and make it worse.

Lessons of the election

None of the available options at this stage are ideal: prevention would clearly have been better than cure. The lessons of this election must be urgently applied now rather than consigned safely to the past as they were after the 2005 polls: there is after all another election in a year. But more to the point, the international community must get serious about supporting democracy rather than just occasional elections. A parliamentary election was held in 2005, at great expense: since then the world has looked on as parliament was marginalised and ignored. If accountability really matters, the fact that (for example) three ministers are still in post despite having been rejected by the assembly should be the cause of much greater concern and pressure. And in the longer run, the current crisis should reinforce the case for changing the winner-takes-all system.

But the most important immediate step that can be taken in reaction to the problems of the 2009 election is not to ignore them. There must be a temptation to declare that all is well, or at least acceptable, and to move on. The international community should be prepared as a matter of basic self-interest to cause friction and kick up a fuss, and to invest considerable capital in pressing for a solution that provides credible legitimacy for the government. It may be more painful in the short term, but the damage done by failing to act is surely greater.

Stephen Carter is an independent policy analyst and political adviser who has worked extensively on and in Afghanistan and other post-conflict countries since 2003. He was an international election observer with the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan.

The views expressed above are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


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