When Afghanistan voted for its first post-Taliban parliament, or Wolesi Jirga, in September 2005, the exercise was hailed as a litmus test for the country's future. Former president George W. Bush dubbed that election "a major step forward in Afghanistan's development as a democratic state." Then-Afghan foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, speaking at CFR, called it a "landmark event" for a war-ravaged nation.
Yet as voters headed to the polls this weekend to cast ballots in their county's second parliamentary election, international observers seemed inclined to downplay expectations (WSJ). With good reason.
Violence in Afghanistan is near an all-time high (PDF), attacks against aid groups are spiking (PDF), and Taliban commanders have vowed to derail the voting with threats and constant harassment (AFP). Since campaigning began in late June, three candidates and eleven of their staffers have been killed by the Taliban or local warlords. "Many more have been abducted, assaulted, intimidated, and seriously injured," notes the Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan, an independent monitoring board. Even the UN has pulled out a third of its international staff in anticipation of bloodshed (Guardian).
Few, therefore, expect Election Day to be fraud-free. Fake ballots have been uncovered in Pakistan (RFE/RL), and entrenched candidates have already been accused of buying votes from local constituents. Staffan de Mistura, the UN's special envoy to Afghanistan, says he expects the elections to be "far from" perfect, if somewhat better than the 2009 presidential voting in which allegations of ballot-box stuffing and impropriety were widespread. Afghan election officials have equally modest goals. "If our polling staff applies [election procedures] properly," Afghan Independent Election Commission chief Fazal Ahmad Manawi told journalists in Kabul this week, "no one will be able to vote more than once."
Domestic political realities in the West are no doubt factoring into the revised electoral ambitions, amid concern that linking Afghanistan's future to free and fair elections might meet with disappointment at the polls. In December, U.S. President Barack Obama will lead a review of Afghan war strategy; some analysts believe without clear signs of progress, the United States will be forced to change course (Reuters), perhaps accelerating a planned troop drawdown. In European capitals, pessimism is even more pronounced, a recent study by the German newspaper Der Spiegel found. NATO nations have already begun scaling back troop commitments in response to public pressure (WashPost).
Rather than focus on the elections, then, the U.S. is concentrating on the country's deteriorating security by adding more troops (at an increasing cost), while pushing Afghan officials to clamp down on fraud. Among the thorniest issues to surface in recent weeks have been allegations of fraud inside Afghanistan's shaky financial sector, including reports of cronyism and mismanagement at the troubled Kabulbank (Reuters).
During a White House news conference on September 10, President Obama called on President Hamid Karzai to restore Afghans' confidence in the government by rooting out corruption. "Is it going to happen overnight? Probably not," Obama opined. But nor will it happen with one more trip to the ballot box (PDF), argues Noah Coburn of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit, a Kabul-based think tank. "Instead," Coburn writes, "the Afghan government and international organizations need to take the challenges of the 2010 election as an opportunity to start serious conversations about how corruption and impunity are creating instability." Put another way, it's not elections that will set Afghanistan's course, but how democracy is implemented (Registan.net) that matters most.
The Center for Strategic and International Studies examines the critical issues confronting Afghans as they head to the polls this weekend.
Thomas Ruttig, a senior analyst with the Afghanistan Analysts Network, explains why political parties and party lists have not taken off in Afghanistan.
In this Foreign Policy expert roundup, several journalists, observers, and experts give their perspective on what the new round of voting means for Afghanistan.