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Ending the Afghan Election Crisis

Interviewee: Peter M. Manikas, Regional Director for Asia Programs, National Democratic Institute
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer, CFR.org
October 20, 2009

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President Hamid Karzai's decision to stand for a runoff vote (AP) on November 7 in Afghanistan's fraud-tainted elections was seen as a victory for Western diplomats. U.S. President Barack Obama called Karzai's decision an "important precedent for Afghanistan's new democracy." Yet, Peter M. Manikas, who monitored the voting on August 20th for the National Democratic Institute, a Washington-based advocacy group, says the challenges to executing a fraud-free and legitimate runoff in just a few weeks will be monumental. Manikas plans to return for the vote next month. Chief among the issues to be resolved between now and then, Manikas says, is securing as many polling centers as possible, and purging members of the Afghan Independent Election Commission seen as "complicit" in ballot tampering. But despite the many hurdles, Manikas sees a runoff as the best scenario for restoring confidence in Afghanistan's tattered democratic system. "Given the problems that occurred earlier in the recent election," he says," this is probably the best outcome for the credibility of the next government, and enhancing its legitimacy."

President Hamid Karzai has just conceded that he didn't win an outright victory in his country's August 20 presidential vote, and Afghanistan's Independent Election Commission has ordered a presidential runoff for November 7. You monitored the initial vote, and you're planning to head back to Afghanistan to monitor the runoff. How will this next round of voting be carried out? Can you give us a little sense of the process?

The Independent Election Commission (IEC) will conduct the election itself. The Election Complaints Commission (ECC), which is a hybrid body consisting of both international and Afghan members, will oversee the complaints process. They obviously have a very short period of time in which to put this together. It's going to be very challenging and the task that they face is to show an improved process over the last election that as you know was highly contested in the manner in which it was conducted, which was fraught with problems.

So what can the international community do in a very short window to help the process along?

The burden is really on the [Afghan] election commission to demonstrate that this election won't simply repeat all the mistakes and problems of the last one. There are a few things that they could do in a relatively short period of time, the most important of which is to enhance the security around many of the polling stations, understanding that it's going to be very difficult in the places in which a conflict is still raging. There's still a lot of places that were insecure that can be made more secure with the presence of both additional Afghan and international forces. That's really critical because without that level of security it's almost impossible to recruit election officials to serve in those areas, but also they're not subject to scrutiny by domestic election monitors or the international monitors. So the security is really key to putting this together.

The second matter that could be undertaken quickly is removing the IEC officials that were clearly complicit in wrongdoing during the last election; you can't just have the same people in place that clearly were complicit in the fraud that took place, or perhaps even were deeply involved in it.

If they aren't removed might we expect the same result next time?

There's clearly a need to rethink the composition of the IEC. It's not as independent as it ought to be despite its name-all the members are selected by the president himself. That's not a sensible procedure for selecting election commissioners in any system. But that requires changes in the law, and there's not sufficient time to do that over the next two weeks. So you have to live with what you have. And there's a lot of ambiguity in regard to the actual performance of the IEC. There are allegations that the IEC in Kabul was biased, but on the other hand they also made some decisions that were contrary to what president Karzai wanted as well. The bigger problem is actually not in the members of the IEC in Kabul but rather the staff throughout the country, and some of it is probably due to poor training but it's a problem endemic to recruiting election commission staff from the areas in which they're going to be administering the polls. So there's pressure from people that they know, perhaps village elders, or local commanders that put pressure on them to do certain things that are illegal or of questionable legality.

"Given the problems that occurred earlier in the recent election, this is probably the best outcome for the credibility of the next government, and enhancing its legitimacy."

How can the Afghans and the international community ensure that polling stations will be protected this time around? Are you suggesting that if we can't protect a polling station-in regions that are still too dangerous-that polling stations there should be closed?

They probably should. And in fact that was the idea that was supposed to have been implemented during the last election. It obviously creates a burden on the Afghan voters, because if you close one polling station, they have to travel further to vote at another. You have to keep in mind that under the Afghan law, voters within a province can vote anywhere within their province; they don't have to vote in any particular polling station. Indeed, they could vote anywhere in the country for the presidential election, but they could vote anywhere within the province for their provincial council candidates. There will always be polling stations open within a particular province, obviously, and perhaps even within a particular district, but it may not be the one that would have been open closer to your home. It'll obviously lead to a lot of people not being able to make the trip-particularly as winter approaches-to a polling station if the ones nearer to their homes are closed, but that's probably necessary to prevent the kind of fraud that occurred earlier.

In defense of the greater good?

Yes. I mean there has been a plan in place-and I was actually somewhat surprised to see it not implemented-that ballots were not to be sent to polling stations that weren't secured by the Afghan national police, and in which IEC members were not obviously present. Now, the allegation around all these "ghost" polling stations indicated that ballots have been sent to polling stations that didn't really exist.

That was the allegation raised by Peter Galbraith (WashPost) [former deputy special representative of the United Nations in Afghanistan]?

That's correct.

So essentially that plan wasn't implemented and in up to 1,500 polling stations, voting was conducted and no one was watching?

That's right.

Why do you think Karzai accepted the runoff call?

He had two options, or perhaps three. He could either accept the results as required by law; he could follow a legal process and challenge the results in court, which would have been a legally prescribed procedure for doing that; or he could just refuse to accept the results and stay in office despite the findings of the election commission, although that would have [amounted] to a coup. That was not a very viable option, really.

But some might already use the word "coup" to refer to the way the last election was carried out. In some polling centers, especially in places were monitors were absent, there were cases of more ballots being cast than registered voters. In many cases these fraudulent votes were cast for Karzai.

Certainly it's unclear as to whether the fraud that took place was planned by the president himself. There's no particular evidence that would point in that direction. What's clear is that the president recruited a lot of people, and they were under pressure to produce votes, and that probably led to the problems that occurred. Whether that was orchestrated from the very top is just not known. So to call it a "coup" probably would be a bit of an overstatement, at least in regard to what we know now. But still, there was fraud that took place on behalf of some of the other candidates as well, although the fraud on behalf of President Karzai seems to be by far the greatest.

On the news that a runoff will take place next month-how significant is this for Afghanistan?

"The most important [thing for November 7] is to enhance the security around many of the polling stations, understanding that it's going to be very difficult in the places in which a conflict is still raging."

Given the problems that occurred earlier in the recent election, this is probably the best outcome for the credibility of the next government, and enhancing its legitimacy. So it's a positive step in that regard. It's unfortunate, obviously, that things happened the way they did, but having a runoff is a better outcome than some sort of deal or other arrangement that would have circumvented the electoral process. You had millions of Afghans who risked their lives to participate in the last election. To arrange the next government around a process that didn't take their electoral choices in consideration, I think that would have been a tragedy.

And how about American objectives in the country? Is this a positive step in Washington's eyes?

Well I think it makes it easier to move forward in formulating a strategy and presenting it to the American people. Having a government in place is certainly going to be critical for addressing the really major issues, sort of the big picture items. The things that require Afghan presidential leadership in generating a public consensus around dealing with the illegal drug trade and the conflict itself--security itself, issues regarding reconciliation--all that requires a legitimate government in place. There are a lot of things though that can go on even in the absence of that: there are a lot of development objectives that probably could have taken place even if there had been an interim government in place rather than an elected government.

The presidential elections were not the only elections on August 20. Afghans also voted for provincial councils. Did we see the level of fraud in local provincial voting as we saw in the national vote?

We don't know for sure. The ECC has not even begun the process of hearing or examining the complaints that have been filed in regard to the provincial councils. We know that there were several complaints filed and it seems likely that polling stations that were most affected by the fraud in the presidential race probably also tainted the electoral process for the provincial council races as well. But there has been very little focus on the provincial council races up until now, and there probably won't be until after the runoff. The ECC doesn't have the capacity to both examine the provincial council races and to process the complaints that have been filed and conduct a runoff at the same time.

Yes and the great irony is, for Afghans, their only connection to the central government is through these local governments.

[A]nd very little international attention has been placed on the provincial councils, and even now I hear a lot of talk about, "Well, the way forward is to give more power to the provincial governors." Well, they're unelected. I mean why not help support elected institutions and help them develop the capacity to actually perform governmental functions in their representative capacity? Everybody below and above the provincial councils seems to get all the attention.

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