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Afghanistan. Widespread fraud deeply undermined the credibility of Karzai’s government

Kabul/Brussels - Widespread fraud in the 20 August presidential and provincial council polls has deeply undermined the credibility of Hamid Karzai’s government, the main beneficiary of the rigging. 

Afghanistan faces a critical test in the run-off between President Karzai and former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah on 7 November and afterwards. A flawed second round will hand Taliban insurgents a significant strategic victory and erode public confidence in the electoral process and the international commitment to the country’s democratic institutions. Reforming and strengthening state institutions and establishing genuine constitutional governance must be tackled as the top priority if the political rot is to be stemmed and the insurgents denied yet another opportunity to exploit the crisis of legitimacy that is the product of a dysfunctional political order.

Unless steps are urgently taken to reform Afghanistan’s electoral institutions, in particular to reconstitute the Independent Election Commission (IEC), there is little chance of reversing public disillusionment with elections. There are as yet few signs that the U.S. and others who wrestled with President Karzai to obtain his acceptance of a run-off have either the time, political will or resources available to correct the many flaws that led to the fraud. Barring sanctions against those at the highest-level responsible for the rigging and the swift adoption of extra security measures ahead of the run-off, it is more than likely that earlier missteps will be repeated.

Preliminary results issued by the IEC on 16 September, amid reports of widespread intimidation at the polls, ballot stuffing, ghost polling stations and interference by IEC staff and candidate agents, had indicated a majority win for Karzai. A review completed on 18 October dropped Karzai below the 50 per cent mark needed to win the presidency in the first round. A protracted investigation by the Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC) into more than 600 high-priority complaints and a simultaneous audit of results from nearly 3,400 polling stations led to the disqualification of fraudulent votes. The lack of transparency and resulting confusion surrounding the electoral review process conducted by the ECC, the partisan actions of= 0the IEC and unresolved frictions between Afghanistan’s electoral institutions could easily be repeated on 7 November, deepening tensions within the country.

Although the 20 August elections were for the first time conducted ostensibly under sole Afghan leadership, the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was heavily involved in planning and preparations. In local perceptions, the international community was an active participant. When its representatives quickly declared the elections a qualified success in August, they reinforced widespread Afghan sentiment that the political expedience of the rubber stamp was preferred to an honest assessment of systemic flaws in a process the international community helped put in place and has failed to remedy. The early endorsements may have cost particularly the U.S., European Union and UN what little credibility they had left with the p ublic.

The international community must now realise that stabilising Afghanistan requires a drastic overhaul of the institutions they have helped put in place and subsequently supported. These include a highly centralised constitutional order in which the legislature has been denied the tools to check an overbearing executive, and a neglected judiciary, which contributes to the climate of impunity and corruption fuelling the insurgency.

The insurgents believe that they now have the upper hand. The security situation has deteriorated significantly during 2009, and the weeks before the August election saw the worst levels of violence since the U.S.-led intervention in 2001. At least four candidates for the provincial elections were killed, and many more attempts were made. At least 71 members of the international military force (ISAF) were killed in July the highest monthly toll since 2001, and UN figures show that 1,013 civilians were killed between January and June, up from 818 in the same period in 2008.

The elections were preceded by a large increase in foreign troops, 21,000 from the U.S. and a further 5,000 from other NATO members. Most troops were deployed in the south and east. On election day at least 31 people were killed, including eleven IEC workers, making it the most violent 24 hours since the fall of the Taliban. Violence has proliferated since then across the country, with several incidents resulting in large numbers of casualties, including a bombing attack on the Indian embassy on 8 October that killed at least seventeen and injured 76.

The Taliban announced towards the end of July that they would attempt to “disrupt the elections”. They have now declared their intention to attack election officials and voters alike. Not only could the deteriorating security environment adversely affect the turnout on election day, but the fraudulent first round and the last two months of political uncertainty have been a boon for the insurgency. A second round of polls in which even fewer voters show up to cast their ballots in predominantly Pashtun areas will feed directly into Taliban claims that electoral processes will bring few real changes.

The Taliban’s growing tactical advantage now rests not only in its ability to operate freely in areas where Afghans have largely been abandoned by their government but in its ability to point to the Karzai government’s failure to deliver on the electoral process. In the remaining days before the second round, IEC Chairman Azizullah Ludin should be replaced, and IEC staff and government officials implicated in the fraud should be removed. More effort should be made to secure polling sites and balloting materials. Once the polling process is completed, the ECC and IEC must proactively investigate evidence of fraud and make the complaint review process transparent and comprehensible.

The candidate who ultimately wins the presidential contest will take office with a much-weakened mandate but will face challenges posed by a pandemic of corruption and a stronger Taliban insurgency. Political deals struck to corral votes and appease rivals are likely to stymie progress on governmental reform. Pressure must be brought to bear on Kabul to strengthen state institutions and to make them more accountable to the Afghan public.

The political system itself is in need of fundamental reform. Focus is required on making the system more functional and representative. Provincial and eventually district councils must be given more opportunities to influence local outcomes, while remaining accountable to the political centre in Kabul. Broad agreement is needed to improve the very poor working relationships between the branches of the state and to make the balance-of-power concept effective. An ultimate constitutional arbiter must be identified in order to ensure that remedies sought in court are adhered to and respected.

Afghans and the international community alike must set their sights on genuine political change. Vigorous constitutional reform is what is needed most now, and this can only be undertaken through a loya jirga (grand assembly). The formation of a loya jirga to amend the constitution requires the participation of the National Assembly and both the district and provincial councils. This means that credible district council elections will have to be held alongside parliamentary polls in 2010.

Kabul failed to delineate district council boundaries and hold district council elections when the security situation was far more conducive; it is likely that it will be tempted to postpone those elections again, using the rise in insurgent attacks as justification. The delineation of district boundaries under the compressed timeline mapped out in the constitution may be difficult and contentious, but it must be made a priority in the coming months if district council members are to be properly elected. Failing that, the National Assembly in its current composition must move forward with a loya jirga so that the work of overhauling the constitution can begin.

Parliament can no longer allow itself to be sidelined by executive power run amok in Kabul. Deliberations over constitutional reform are likely to be contentious, and possibly drawn out. But there are no quick fixes on the route to stability. Anything less than vigorous constitutional and electoral reform will only fuel further conflict in Afghanistan.
© Crisis International -

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