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The Folly of Holding Afghan Elections

Interviewee: Candace Rondeaux, South Asia Senior Analyst, Afghanistan, International Crisis Group
Interviewer: Greg Bruno, Staff Writer
August 31, 2010

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Afghanistan's parliamentary elections, set for September 18, will be seen as a test of that country's stability nine years after the U.S.-led invasion, and three months before U.S. President Barack Obama reviews progress in the war effort. But if balloting is meant to serve as a litmus test for a military campaign that continues to sputter along, Afghanistan analyst Candace Rondeaux says the West should prepare for disappointment. For one, a surge in pre-election violence, coupled with a growing list of corrupt candidates, will discourage many Afghans from voting, Rondeaux says. Changes to the Afghan-run commission that investigates electoral fraud will also make a free and fair tally unlikely, she says. And while parliament has in recent months exhibited a willingness to challenge President Hamid Karzai on numerous issues, the corrupt lineup of candidates running this time makes it unlikely such independence will continue, she says.

In mid-September, thousands of Afghan candidates will compete for the 249-member lower house of parliament. How are the elections shaping up in terms of security, transparency, and potential turnout?

As we get closer to election day, we're going to see very much a repeat of last year, where candidates, campaign managers, [and] members are at risk. We've had three candidates [killed] so far and that's just the start. It's safe to say that the competition is very high with so many candidates [over 2,550] in the field for such a small number of seats [249 seats are being competed for in the Afghan parliament]. It's a very complex chess game. On the one hand, security is not very good because there's an insurgency. But also, this sort of internecine competition between what are essentially members of a sort of political mafia have encouraged [candidates] to be a little bit more bold in their bullying and their intimidations against rivals. So this is really a very volatile situation. At the end of the day, it's difficult to say what the impact will be. It's very clear that we will not have a sitting parliament for many, many months to come even after the elections, in part because there'd be a lot of challenges. And it's not entirely clear whether the ECC, the Electoral Complaints Commission, is fully equipped or prepared to deal with some hundreds of challenges in such a complex political field.

There have already been reports of irregularity, such as attempted vote buying, intimidation, and bribery. Can the tide be reversed?

There are very few opportunities now to reverse course. Unfortunately, the train was out of the station the minute there was a decision to go forward with these elections. There's a lot of work that needed to be done before holding these elections. In a more calm environment, maybe a less politically pressurized environment, both in Kabul and Washington and Brussels, if everybody had taken a step back, they'd have seen the cliff that we're about to now go over. But this is a very difficult political picture for everybody involved. Most importantly, Afghans themselves are really struggling to understand what is going to happen next. It's not clear what the outcome's going to be.

Allegations of fraud are investigated by the Afghan Electoral Complaints Commission, which was heavily criticized last year for failing to address irregularities in the 2009 presidential balloting. Is the ECC any better equipped to deal with fraud that is certain to arise from this round of voting?

I think it's very clear that we will not have a sitting parliament for many, many months to come even after the elections.

The controversy was essentially that in the prior election [the presidential election in August 2009], there had to be sort of a supermajority, if you will, and the internationals [non-Afghan commissioners] sort of provided by divisional composition--there were three internationals [on the five-member board]--a possibility of a dissenting vote along the majority line. There was always that possibility. Now, there's only two [non-Afghan commissioners], so the impact of whatever challenges they might raise to belay a specific complaint that they handled or the way that the process is going to be rolled out in terms of evaluating fraud, they just won't have the same impact at all.

We're starting to hear reports that due to a tenuous security situation, voters may not risk venturing out to cast ballots. Are we likely to see a steep drop-off in participation across the country?

I can't see any other alternative for voters today. It's a risky proposition to go and vote for somebody who could end up stealing their paycheck. At the end of the day, what's the motivation for anybody right now? Most voters really do feel like they deserve a choice, so some will show up, [but] the intent is just not there. The security isn't going to be there at the polls. In some places, the polls might not even exist. If we have another repeat of last year, where you have polling sites being closed because of security situations so bad and then you have voters left out there who are on their way to the polling station, this is a very precarious situation. One has to wonder: What does the voter get out of this?

The balloting has already been delayed once, and you've called for it to be delayed again. At this point though, is it too late?

This is a choice that has to be made with the utmost care and careful consideration, and I don't think it would be a decision that either the UN or NATO or the United States has shown any signs of supporting postponement. They're extremely nervous, they recognize the risk involved with this whole exercise, but they have a few things going for them. People are extremely distracted by this corruption issue. There will not be as many international observers this time, simply because it's not going to be safe enough for them to be effective. And it's not really clear that the press, international or national, has fully done its job in raising some of the dangerous issues that are going to come up as we get closer to the polling day. This lack of scrutiny could potentially create some insulation in some ways.

But at the end of the day, [if parliament is not seated soon after the elections], we're going to have a situation where we've got maybe several hundred candidates in contention come December, when it comes time [for President Obama] to do another strategic assessment of the way forward. If that's the case, what's the expectation? We still don't have a full cabinet. We have an [Afghan] president who is reluctant to enforce the law. And we won't have a sitting parliament for months. I mean, is this what we are all working for? Is this stabilization?

Why isn't the international community raising the alarms, then?

Short-termism has been the name of the game in Afghanistan since the start of this engagement. And it is not at all surprising that nine years later, we don't have much to show for this type of thinking. There are real and serious and very sincere members of the military, members of the international community who are absolutely convinced that the only way forward is just to think long haul. The problem is that time is running out in terms of the domestic constituency in Brussels, Washington, and elsewhere. It has not helped to have this deadline hanging over people's heads [President Obama has set July 2011 as the start of the U.S. withdrawal], and it's made things quite difficult. Anyone who spends any time in Afghanistan fully understands that if you want to make change here, you've got to get your arms around really big institutional change and you have to be prepared to fight that fight, but recognize that at the same time, if you don't have Afghan buy in, you're not going to go anywhere.

Yet Afghan politicians have exhibited some level of independence, right? The current parliament has refused to pass President Karzai's budget, and it's rejected some of the president's cabinet picks. Some might call that democracy.

It's a risky proposition to go and vote for somebody who could end up stealing their paycheck. I mean at the end of the day, what's the motivation for anybody right now?

This parliament in the last two years has demonstrated that it's certainly interested in the powers that are granted to them under the constitution. There is this dawning now in parliament--particularly [among] some of the more progressive members of parliament--that they've got to show something to their constituents. And even some of the less progressive ones also recognize that a lot of their powers should rest in delivering things like projects and roads and so forth. It's actually not all that different than Washington in some ways or any other place in the world. There's going to be pushback in an election year against the executive every time. This year, it just happens to be one of the possibly last chances that the few progressives in the parliament have to make a bid for change.

Explain that. Are you suggesting that some of this independence that the parliament has exhibited in the last couple of months is in jeopardy because of the very candidates who are running in this upcoming election?

Let's look at the candidates. They're an amalgam of construction barons, drug warlords, ex-commandos, logisticians for international organizations. Some are not even Afghan citizens, some carry U.S. passports, Canadian passports. The choices are not good for Afghan voters when they go to the polls on September 18. They're not good because they're taking a major risk by going out there and exposing themselves in the security situation. They're not good because the candidates that are running, many of them are really quite corrupt to the core. And the other reason that the choices aren't good is because there's no guarantee that if they do throw their vote down, it'll actually be counted correctly. So Afghans in September are looking at kind of a no-win situation.

If all of your predictions hold true, and the elections go off but are riddled with fraud and low turnout, what happens on the nineteenth of September?

The question is, "What happens on the nineteenth of September 2011?" It will take a while before we really understand the impact of more instability generated by flawed elections, but I can say that the trends that are emerging now point toward deeper conflicts between the main ethnicities here, which can also then exacerbate the divide between the north and the south. We'll see that come full circle once parliament is actually sitting. We're going to see a lot of very tough conversations about the constitution. We'll see some very tough conversations about Karzai's term when we get closer to the end of it because there is a lot of fear among Afghan politicians that he may seek to extend his term. That, of course, would be disastrous on a number of levels. The more we force politics the way that they have been forced, the more we ram through strategic goals and benchmarks without ever checking to see whether there are results, the more difficult it's going to become to make this a stable member of the international community.

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