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Afghanistan's Troubled Election

September 11, 2009

Afghanistan's Troubled Election

The Afghan Election Complaints Commission (ECC), with Canadian UN appointee Grant Kippen at it's helm, has published the first results of it's investigation into fraud in the presidential election, held on August 20th. On Thursday the commission announced it would throw out the ballots from 83 Afghan polling stations, where there is definite evidence of fraud. 51 of the problem stations were in Kandahar, 27 in Ghazni, and five in Paktika, according to ECC press releases. Of the 2300 complaints the ECC has received, the largest group concern irregularities at the polls, including ballot box stuffing. Other common complaints include allegations of intimidation, and lack of access to the polls, particularly for women. The ECC investigation is ongoing and could result in a fresh election.

Currently, as vote tallying continues, the three front runners in the presidential election are the incumbent Hamed Karzai with 54.1%, Dr. Abdullah Abdullah with 28 %, and Ramazan Bashardost with 9.2 %. 91.6% of polling stations have been tallied, so the counting is almost done, but further investigations into fraud could change things significantly. According to electoral law, if Karzai doesn't receive at least 50% of the valid votes, there will have to be a run-off election this fall. If enough ballots are invalidated as a result of the ECC investigation, Karzai could lose his current winning position, and fall below the necessary 50%.

A complete announcement of preliminary results from the Independent Election Commission (IEC), the Afghan organization in charge of administrating and tallying the vote, is due Saturday. According to the IEC, support for Karzai was highest in the South of the country, where he obtained his best result in Kandahar with 87.7% of the vote. It may be significant that Kandahar was also the heaviest hit by fraud. Meanwhile Dr. Abdullah obtained the most support in his native Panjshir, and did well throughout the North, while Ramazan Bashardost did best in his home province of Bamian, and the central Hazarajat region. None of this is surprising , as voting was expected to breakdown along ethnic lines. Still there was stronger opposition to Karzai than was unexpected by many pundits, who predicted an easy win for Karzai. Despite Karzai's widening lead it is still unclear how much of it was the result of fraud.

Ashraf Ghani, another prominent candidate, and former advisor and minister to Karzai was quoted by BBC correspondent Chris Morris as saying that "A lot of people are serving the king's will without the king being aware of it,". Meanwhile, "the King", as Karzai is colloquially known in Afghanistan, isn't saying much. Today his spokesperson told the BBC that it was important not to spread "rumours" of fraud before the Election Complaints Commission had finished investigating all allegations.

But aside from the overt ballot stuffing which was observed, photographed and videotaped on election day, there were deeper problems with the system, and indications of fraud were available early on. One well documented example of an early indication of fraud, is the problem of voter registration. As the National Democratic Institute, an American organization that monitored the elections noted in their delegation’s preliminary report, "there is widespread agreement . . . that the existing voter registry is grossly inaccurate." Part of the problem is in the way the voter registry was built. Instead of creating a fresh registry for the 2009 election as originally intended, election officials settled for an update of the existing registry. This meant that, in addition to 4.4 million new cards, the 12.5 existing voter cards remained valid. Unfortunately, no measures were established to prevent those with cards from obtaining a second card, and there is evidence that far too many cards were issued. For example, according to an International Crisis Group report, Panjshir province (Abdullah's political stronghold), has more registered voters than it has inhabitants (including children).

To make matters worse, many women voters were registered by proxy, particularly in conservative southern provinces. Because it is considered culturally insensitive to require a woman to show her face, large numbers of registration cards were simply given to men who claimed they had female relatives, often without verification that these female relatives actually existed. The result: in Logar province 72% of registered voters were women. that's 72958 women to only 38500 men, in a province where many women are not allowed to leave their homes unaccompanied by a male relative. Conservative Paktia and Khost also showed more women registered to vote than men, as did Nuristan. This led to some entertaining headlines like this Telegraph weblog entitled "Karzai's secret weapon: Obedient girl power." With the country awash in fraudulent voter registration cards, is it any surprise that some polling stations turned in more ballots than expected?

But piles of extra voting cards were not the only thing that signaled a problem election early on. Karzai had more than one secret weapon. Well in advance of the polls, many were claiming that the president's use of national institutions to promote his campaign amounted to fraud. Both the NDI delegation, and the EU Observation Mission (EUOM) preliminary reports take note of the bias toward the Karzai campaign by Afghan public television and radio (RTA) coverage. The EUOM reported that it's media monitors had found public radio allocated 72% of its election coverage to Karzai. Unfortunately, such abuses of government power are not yet illegal in Afghanistan, where laws that limit presidential powers have frequently been blocked by the president. A media law that would have prohibited the unfair coverage passed through parliament but has never been signed by Karzai.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that expectations were low in the run up to the poll. "If the level of corruption or violation is under 10 percent, it will be acceptable for me," the executive director of the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an election monitoring group, told the Associated Press a week before the election.

This is a common sense approach, since there was significant fraud in the last presidential election, held in October, 2004. During that election, the acknowledged fraud was considered not to have been enough to corrupt the result, since Karzai had three times more votes than any other candidate. But that was a different era. Back then, Karzai's reputation was still relatively intact. And there was no strong opposition candidate. Most Afghans still had faith in the international mission, or at least had a sense of optimism, buoyed by the end of the much-loathed Taliban regime. This time around things are different. Karzai's popularity has plummeted during his four and a half years of rule, and the much-loathed Taliban are now considered negotiating partners, if only they would agree to come to the table. An increasingly disgruntled Afghan public, now confronted by a fishy election, threatens to make the already floundering international mission next to impossible.

With the stakes so high, and so much international money invested in making this election work, where did things go wrong? The truth might turn out to be that you can't fix a rotten system by holding an election, no matter how much money you invest. As one democracy expert put it to me in Kabul a few months back, elections are institutionalized conflicts. People will cheat to the extent that they can cheat. If he's right, it follows that you can't hold a free and fair election in a country without the basic rule of law. And once you admit the election isn't free and fair, it may be too much to expect Afghans to abide by the result, whatever that may turn out to be.

Email Ariel Nasr at ariel.nasr@gmail.com

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Bang on

Well put Ariel. The question begs to be asked though: even assuming that the elections were fair enough to be considered legit, what real autonomy do the Afghan people have, given that they are effectively occupied by foreign armies?