The dangers to Afghan democracy

Raja Karthikeya
8 September 2009

The recent elections in Afghanistan may have been historic, but electoral fraud may have eclipsed the success of the process. Democracy has never been easy in Afghanistan, but it now faces twin challenges - that of surviving the vicious propaganda of the Taliban as well as the unscrupulousess of the country's own polity. The recent elections were rife with incidents of electoral fraud, especially in insurgency-affected parts of southern Afghanistan. Calling the elections an unmitigated success or failing to investigate these incidents of fraud would be a dire injustice to the Afghan people.

Raja Karthikeya was an international observer for the elections in AfghanistanTo start with, the pre-election period was marked by intimidation of both voters and candidates. While the Taliban threatened voters with bodily harm if they cast their ballot, candidates bribed voters without hesitation with clothes, sacks of wheat and other incentives. In fact, while focusing on the Taliban threat to the elections, the international community is paying inadequate attention to the element of candidate corruption which was rampant in these elections.

Several instances of malpractice have come to light. In one southern district, one candidate's supporters hosted a large rally for women, where they distributed clothes to all the attendees and then collected the voter identity cards of the women for proxy voting. There have been several instances in which tribal leaders collected voter ID cards of their tribe members and sold the cards' numbers to candidates. On polling day, these voter ID numbers were used to fill voter registers at polling stations, while ballot boxes were stuffed in favor of some candidates. The voter ID cards themselves have been controversial since there were at least two versions of the cards and some voters have more than one card. Women's voter ID cards, given the conservative nature of Afghan society, did not carry photographs making identification difficult and were suspected to be a medium for electoral fraud even before polling day. There were significant complaints of harassment and intimidation of opposition candidates' supporters and campaigners by police and security agencies. Police officials in some districts allegedly took ballot boxes home on polling day in the guise of "protection" and returned them stuffed with ballots favoring certain candidates. Strictly speaking, the fraud was bipartisan in nature if not in effect. While the majority of fraud seemed to favor one candidate, there were reports of fraud by a challenger as well.

Voter turnout is being taken by much of the international media and observers, as the barometer of success of the elections. But in reality, voter turnout varied widely across the country. In the north, despite violence by the Taliban in some provinces such as Kunduz, the turnout was rather high, touching 50 percent in some towns. This was in part due to the improved security situation in that part of the country, and in part due to the desire of ethnic minorities to make their presence felt in the next government.

Paul Rogers's weekly column on openDemocracy has tracked conflict in Afghanistan since September 2001.

Among the recent articles:

"Afghanistan's Vietnam portent" (17 April 2008)

"Afghanistan in an amorphous war" (19 June 2008)

"Afghanistan: state of siege" (10 July 2008)

"Afghanistan: on the cliff-edge" (28 August 2008)

"Afghanistan: the dynamic and the risk" (9 October 2008)

"Iraq's gift to Afghanistan" (20 November 2008)

"Afghanistan's twisting path" (9 July 2009)

"Afghanistan's lost decade" (16 July 2009)But the strategically vital region in the elections was always going to be the south. Two major reasons contributed to this. Firstly, The leading opposition candidates who hailed from ethnic minorities like Tajiks and Hazaras had their largest support base in the north while Karzai's main constituency lay in the Pashtun-dominated south. Secondly, Pashtuns at large feel victimized by both sides of the ongoing war. Pashtuns, especially the nationalists, feel that the former Northern Alliance-dominated government in Kabul has been unrepresentative and unresponsive to them, with Karzai as a mere figurehead. Naturally, the elections in the South, which is dominated by Pashtuns, were expected to be a close affair. In the run-up to the polls, most of the leading candidates tried to identify themselves with voters in the South through tribal or other ties of kinship. But come polling day, almost the entire region was besieged by the Taliban. The Kandahar-Helmand road was blocked, one district head was assassinated and several candidates were threatened. In Helmand, Zabul and Farah provinces, it was nearly impossible for a voter to walk to the polling station. In the strategically vital Kandahar province - the birthplace of both President Karzai and the Taliban's Mullah Omar and the hometown by association of Abdullah Abdullah - polling was possible only in a few district headquarters and Kandahar city itself. Given this situation, voter turnout in the region was less than 10 percent. To some extent, the electoral fraud seems to have even been perpetrated almost in response to the low voter turnout. It would be surprising therefore, if the elections were considered a nationwide success .

The elections were necessary to give legitimacy to the Karzai government and its political and military actions to fight the insurgency. Fraud in these elections has thus created a Catch-22 situation for the international community. Questioning the credibility of the elections would feed into the Taliban's propaganda and tantamount to a strategic loss for the Coalition. Yet, declaring the elections a success would fuel the growing sense of injustice among Afghans, creating recruits for the Taliban and feed conspiracy theories about the election being stage-managed by the West. While this dilemma is not easy to resolve, the latter tactic of declaring the elections a complete success would prove far more costly to the international community than admitting the faults and investigating them.

Fundamental to such dilemmas of Afghanistan are questions about the wisdom of having a democratic system itself in Afghanistan. As one influential tribal leader in southern Afghanistan summed up for me, "Why is democracy being imposed on us? Under the tribal system, people obeyed us leaders. They came to us for resolution of disputes and we protected them". The leader's contention was that the West was asking Afghanistan to achieve democracy in a span of years, a task that the West itself took centuries to accomplish. Voting for a candidate was still largely along tribal lines in Afghanistan. Tribal voters considered voting as a method of buying the patronage and protection (even from the law) of a powerful candidate. The argument therefore is that Democracy as we outsiders understand it is unsustainable if not unsuitable for Afghanistan.

Nothing could be farther from the truth. Neither such tribal leaders nor international thinkers have bothered to ask average Afghans what they want. Afghans across the country, especially the youth, strongly desire democracy. Much as they have respect for the jirga system, they do not want to see it become the de jure system of national governance in the country. Nor do Afghans, even in the Pashtun areas, desire the return of the Taliban. For Afghans any triumph of the Taliban itself would amount to a betrayal once again of the Afghan people by the West. When Afghans hear of efforts to negotiate with "moderates" across social strata that I spoke to say that surrendered Taliban rarely pull their weight with their former cadre. They may act as interlocutors but seldom can they get former comrades to give up arms. Kabul should first build credibility with the people through reforming its governance before it reaches out to the Taliban.

Therefore, the value of elections to the Afghan people should not be underestimated. Voter cynicism, which is a product of mis-governance in the country as well as the result of conspiracy theories, should not be mistaken for voter apathy. As one young Afghan said, "We'd like to go out and vote. Provided that the winner hasn't already been decided for us".

As the preliminary results have started to come in, the IEC has reportedly thrown out some 200,000 votes from 447 polling stations on account of fraud. The UN-backed adjudicator of the elections, the Election Complaints Commission (ECC), has ordered a recount in some polling stations. But more needs to be done. For instance, the ECC has received about 720 complaints. But in several instances, complainants did not lodge formal complaints, being wary of going to meet local officials. While all complaints may not be credible, it behoves the ECC to send out investigation teams to provinces and districts from where reports of fraud have come in, to meet all candidates' agents and do a thorough investigation. In other words, the ECC should be willing to go beyond the book and the complaints on file to investigate and adjudicate the results. Justice will not otherwise be done to Afghan aspirations for democracy.

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