President Hamid Karzai's re-election on 2 November 2009, following widespread fraud in the 20 August presidential and provincial polls, has delivered a critical blow to his government's legitimacy. The deeply flawed polls have eroded public confidence in the electoral process and in the international community's commitment to the country's nascent democratic institutions. Concentration of power in the executive to the exclusion of the legislature and judiciary has also resulted in a fundamental breakdown in governance while strengthening the hand of the insurgency. To restore stability, vigorous constitutional reform under the aegis of a loya jirga must be undertaken; an impartial commission of inquiry into the flawed elections should be formed; the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) should be restructured to restore credibility; and prompt steps must be taken to strengthen institutions.
The 20 August presidential and provincial elections were declared "successful" by both the Afghan government and the U.S., despite the significant Taliban violence that preceded the poll date. At least 30 people were killed on election day alone, and several provincial candidates and campaign workers were killed leading up to the elections, while intimidation resulted in several female candidates withdrawing from the contest. Allegations of systemic fraud emerged even before Karzai and his chief challenger, former Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, each declared victory within 24 hours of the polls' closure. Reports of intimidation, ballot stuffing, ghost polling stations and interference by staff of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) and candidate agents surfaced countrywide, but especially where insecurity led to an absence of female electoral staff, candidate agents and election observers. Turnout was far below the eight million in the 2004 presidential elections.
Preliminary results released on 16 September 2009 indicated Karzai as the winner with 54.6 percent of the vote to 27.7 percent for Adbullah. But a protracted investigation by the independent Electoral Complaints Commission into hundreds of reports of fraud disqualified almost a quarter of the vote and pushed Karzai's toll below 50 percent. Following intense pressure from mainly the U.S., Karzai agreed to a run-off vote against Abdullah, only for Abdullah to on 1 Nov announce that he would not stand again. Abdullah claimed a fair vote was impossible after Karzai had refused to sack the "biased" head of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). The IEC declared Karzai the winner by default on 2 Nov, while Abdullah almost immediately announced he would refuse to join the new administration, and the chances for a negotiated power-sharing government are slim.
With the elections having raised serious doubts about the leigitmacy of his presidency, Karzai now faces a critical test of his willingness to end corruption and cronyism. There is little evidence he will pass this test, as it will be very difficult for Karzai to accommodate the demands of his allies, an amalgam of religious conservatives, tribal strongmen, factional leaders, regional power-brokers, powerful businessmen and local chieftains. The international community must press harder for anti-corruption measures. Intense pressure on Karzai caused the President to promise a focus on curbing corruption in his inauguration speech on 19 November, while the government days earlier had announced the creation of a new high-level anti-graft body. The international community are, however, also perceived by Afghans as an active participant in the flawed electoral process. Although the elections were ostensibly under sole Afghan stewardship, UNAMA was heavily involved in planning, preparations and logistics.
It would be difficult to overestimate the impact of deteriorating security on the polls. Violence has steadily risen in Afghanistan during 2009, and the weeks before and after the poll date saw the worst levels of violence since the invasion in 2001. At least four candidates for the provincial elections were killed, and many more attempts were made. The Taliban announced towards the end of July that they would attempt to "disrupt the elections", and subsequently launched a wave of attacks across the country, but particularly in the southern provinces of Kandahar and Helmand. Security incidents have continued at a high level after the polling date. July saw at least 71 ISAF troops killed, the highest monthly toll since 2001, and UN figures show that 1,013 civilians were killed between January and June 2009, up from 818 in the same period in 2008. While Taliban influence has grown significantly within the last two years, much of the insecurity stemmed from Kabul's failure to deploy sufficient numbers of competent police and soldiers. The elections were preceded by a large increase in foreign troops, with the U.S. committing 21,000 extra military personell before the elections, and NATO contributing a further 5,000, all mostly deployed in the south and east. On 1 December, U.S. President Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, which included the deployment of a further 30,000 U.S. troops and a tentative exit plan for July 2011.
The electoral fraud was a direct consequence of failure to build the capacity of governmental institutions. After the successful 2004 elections, the international community (UNAMA in aprticular) and the Afghan government failed to build up the Independent Electoral Commission, strengthen the legal framework (including replacing the inappropriate Single Non-Transferable Vote System), and produce a sustainable voter registry. Failure in wider institutional strengthening, such as disarmament programs and judicial and police reforms, has also increased popular disillusionment. The lessons learned must be used to ensure a much strengthened process for the planned 2010 National Assembly and district elections.
The political system itself is also in need of serious reform. It is now highly centralised and largely based on patronage, bringing personalities rather than policies to the fore. President Karzai wields enormous powers as head of state and has encouraged an ever-growing culture of impunity. The role of political parties has become increasingly marginalised. There now needs to be a focus on how the political system can be made more functional and representative. Broad agreement is needed on a balance of power among the branches of the state, among which the relationship is now very poor, as well as on identifying which body is the ultimate constitutional arbiter, and on ensuring a more appropriate role for political parties.
Crisis Group Podcast: "Afghanistan's Election Challenges" (12 August 2009)
To continue reading, click here